"Pilots, Man Your Planes!"   
                                         WWII U.S. Naval Aviation Collector's Guide                                                                              
 
U.S. Navy A-14 Oxygen Masks

The flawed logic of our COLLECTOR’S MYTH incorrectly concludes that a lack of vintage photographic evidence of oxygen masks in use by Navy and Marine fliers, combined with the lack of surviving examples in the hands of collectors must indicate that the Navy’s low altitude flight operations in the Pacific theater made oxygen masks largely unnecessary. I’m sure that quite a few of you have already taken the time to actually read some of the many first person accounts of air combat in the Pacific theater. To you, the idea of those battles being limited to altitudes below 10,000 feet (the recommended height to begin oxygen use) must seem very naïve, to say the least.
The excellent book “Aces Against Japan, The American Aces Speak Volume I”, by Eric Hammel, relates numerous first person accounts that describe the true nature of the air war that took place there. For example, the following is an excerpt from the narrative of Captain Jim Cupp, USMC, who flew F4U-1 Corsair fighters with VMF-213 in the Vella Gulf area during July of 1943:

“Our missions were either high, low, or intermediate cover for patrol over Rendova. Low was about 15,000 feet, intermediate was about 20,000 feet and high was about 25,000 feet. Generally, we took off and went over Rendova and patrolled around in circles or in Thach-weave pattern for three hours. Then we went home.” Captain Cupp goes on to recount his flight’s (a flight of eight aircraft consisted of two divisions, each division being made up of two, two plane sections) first successful interception of incoming Japanese bombers on July 15, 1943. “There were about twenty-one of them (Betty medium bombers), with about forty Zeros escorting……We were at 10,000 feet and they were at 20,000…….In the meantime, the fighters that were already on patrol located the Zeros and started in on them. During the few minutes it took us to reach our altitude, we watched many burning Zeros falling out of the sky like autumn leaves. But the fighting was going on out of sight, thousands of feet above us.” After describing his attack on the enemy formation, Captain Cupp continues: “After an eternity of two or three seconds, I managed to slip out of there by applying left rudder and right aileron. I used my tabs and got my airplane in balance. Then suddenly realized that, though we had lost a lot of altitude, I still had my plane in high blower and I was still wearing my oxygen mask.”

Another example from the same source is recounted by Lieutenant (jg) Dick May, USN, with VF-32 aboard USS Langley in April, 1944 (May is on the right in our opening photo of VF-32 pilots). Here he describes the last minute preparations before a predawn catapult launch for an offensive mission against the Japanese held island of Truk. “During catapult procedures, night or day, the VF-32 standard procedure was that the cockpit hatch was always locked open. This was necessary in case of sea ditching. However, due to the heavy rain, I opted to lock the hatch cover closed. I didn’t relish getting soaking wet. We would be climbing to 24,000 feet. It is cool at that altitude, and the Hellcat had no heater. I strapped my oxygen mask over my nose and mouth and set the selector on 100 percent oxygen. In case of sea ditching, I could breathe under water while extricating myself from the plane. Sucking 100 percent oxygen also helps night vision.” After a successful launch and rendezvous, the flight proceeded toward Truk in the heavy rain storm, climbing to gain altitude. Dick May continues: “At 16,000 feet, we broke clear of the storm. No more rain. We reached 24,000 feet.……the skipper dropped us down to 22,000 feet to pick up extra speed……suddenly I saw ahead and below us, at about 16,000 feet, a mass of Japanese fighters climbing in formation, turning from south to east a short distance from us. I tally hoed them over the radio. The enemy was at our 10-o’clock position. We swung toward them, dropping out of 22,000 at full throttle. They had not seen us yet. We were flying out of a blackish sky.”
 
After two examples from fighter pilots, let’s not forget about those gallant rear seat men, “who went riding backward into combat.” Another good reference, “Crommelin’s Thunderbirds, Air Group 12 Strikes the Heart of Japan”, by Bruce and Leonard, gives us some insight into their war. Taken from the account of ARM1c Alfred R. Smith, a radio-gunner flying in SB2C Helldivers with VB-12 aboard the U.S.S. Randolph, are his experiences on the February 17, 1945 strike on the Tachikawa Aircraft Engine Plant northwest of Tokyo:  “While climbing to about fourteen thousand feet, we fitted oxygen masks and opened the cockpit cowls of our ‘rumble seats’ to ready our twin .30-caliber guns for action. Cold! My God, it was frigid back there, and we ‘coolies’ envied our jockeys and their heaters in the closed cockpits. My rubber oxygen mask felt as if it were bonding to my face.”

I’ll leave it to the reader to find your own additional examples if necessary, but these three are provided to help illustrate the point that oxygen use and high altitude flight were the norm, not the exception, for Navy and Marine pilots during the war in the Pacific. Our first step to busting the myth has been taken.

 
Photos of the  A-14 in service use are not that hard to find when you look for them. At top is VF-32 Skipper, Edward Outlaw, also seen in our opening photo on page one of this article.

Next we have a pair of aces. LT (jg) Charles Mallory, with eleven kills, and LT Cecil Harris with twenty four.  At the time of this photo, both were flying with VF-18 aboard CV-11, U.S.S. Intrepid. Mallory has a black strap to secure his A-14, possibly made from the one inch elastic used for goggle straps.

Last is Major Marion Magruder, USMC, commander of VMF(N)-533, known as "Black Mac's Killers". Magruder was a pioneer Marine nightfighter pilot who was part of a small detachment that trained with the RAF in February of 1943 and was designated to obtain detailed knowledge of the British fighter control and direction system, and to speed the acquisition of suitable equipment by the Marine Corps.