"Pilots, Man Your Planes!"   
                                         WWII U.S. Naval Aviation Collector's Guide                                                                              
                Hellcats  over  PROVENCE  
                                                 VF-74 & VOF-1 IN OPERATION DRAGOON,  Part 2
In addition to the twenty-four F6F-5s flown by VF-74 to perform their multifaceted daylight role, seven F6F-3N night fighters (and nine specially trained pilots) of VF-74(N) Detachment were tasked with providing night combat air patrol over the allied ships of the Dragoon invasion fleet while off the coast of Southern France. This land-based contingent operated from Corsica, using both the 321st Medium Bombardment Group's facilities at Solenzara and St. Catherine's airfield at Calvi on the island's northwest coast. Our background photo of VF-74(N)'s F6F-3N number 38 was taken by Edmund Rogowski, a B-25 radioman / gunner from the 447th BS of the 321st BG. It was kindly provided by Barbara Ennis Connolly, 57th Bomb Wing Historical Researcher, 319th & 321st BG Historian, http://57thbombwing.com. Of note are the subject's distinctive radar nacelle, flat windscreen and the flash-hiders seen on the two inboard sets of .50 cal. wing guns. A unique feature, not shared by its night brethren in the Pacific Theater, was the zero-length rocket launchers, presumably installed to enhance it's night anti-shipping capabilities. One such mission was flown by five of the Detachment's planes on the night of August, 20, but no enemy shipping was encountered. Tragically, on their return flight, ENS Marion Foster DeMasters was forced to ditch for reasons unknown. Despite a search and rescue effort, neither he, nor his plane, were located.

Below:  Unlike VF-74's F6F-5s, the -3Ns were delivered from Grumman in the earlier three-tone camouflage of sea blue, intermediate blue and insignia white. In keeping with squadron doctrine, the individual aircraft number was painted in white on the vertical fin. Apparently, no attempt at night camouflage was ever made. Due to a lack of enemy activity at night, the Detachment flew back aboard USS Tulagi on August 24th, the radar equipment was removed and the aircraft performed daylight combat air patrol over the task force for the remainder of the operation. 
Once again, our thanks to Mark Styling for another great profile illustration. To see more of his excellent work, please visit his web site at http://www.markstyling.com/ where you can view, and purchase, his prints of hundreds of similar high quality works of art. 

Below:  Ready for it's test flight, one of the 205 Grumman built F6F-3Ns awaits engine start-up. Common practice was to apply the last three digits of the aircraft's BuAero. number to the cowling sides for easy identification on the factory flight line. In theory, the numbers were to be over-painted once the plane was delivered to it's operational unit, but vintage photos show that this was not always accomplished before going into combat.
Above:  Out with the old and in with the new. At the Grumman factory, a worker puts the finishing touches on the improved windscreen featuring a flat armored glass front panel, while a frame from the previous curved panel style, standard on the F6F-3 model, sits unfinished on her bench. The new design, which  also eliminated some upper bracing, was developed to give better visibility for the F6F-3N night fighter. It proved to be a success and was made standard on the next generation Hellcat, the F6F-5, however, the following was noted in the VF-74(N) Report of Activities made by Detachment commanding officer, LT Harold E. Brown:  " The windshields now provided scratch very easily due to salt or dust. Is was found advisable to carry a chamois skin in every plane."

Below:  Photographed in January of 1944 while still on the assembly line (note the missing gunsight), F6F-3N BuAero. No. 41302, has had it's radar scope installed. The warning placard on the dash reads: "Radar nacelle causes airspeed to indicate 15-20 knots high in left side slip." The aircraft's trim tabs were pre-set at the factory to compensate for the added weight and drag of the nacelle on the right outer wing panel.
The AIA used on the F6F-3N was an airborne interception radar set for single-seat night fighters. The installation weighed 310 lbs., but had no negative effect on the aircraft's armament or speed. The set was operated by the pilot and one maintenance man per set was required at squadron level. It was used to "detect and intercept enemy aircraft in fleet operations and in attacks against fixed bases". The set provided the pilot with a target's range, bearing and relative elevation data, covered ± 60° forward in bearing and elevation, was capable of detecting planes at a maximum reliable range of 3 miles and tracking targets to within 360 feet.
Below:  We stumbled across this photo while reading the October 15, 1944 issue of Naval Aviation News. The location (Corsica) mentioned in the original caption, and the under-wing radar nacelle visible behind the aviation ordnance-man, lead us to the inevitable conclusion that pictured here is one of the seven VF-74(N) Detachment Hellcats. More specifically, it must show one of the five aircraft slated to participate in the only night anti-shipping strike (mentioned at the top of this page), as was plane number 38, seen in our background photo, as both have 5" FFARs fitted on the inboard rocket stations, with 3.5" rockets fitted on the two outboard stations. Rockets would not have been employed for the Detachment's normal night combat air patrols.