By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
With the discovery of the wreck of Lexington (CV 2) in the depths of the Coral Sea, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his team on board the research vessel Petrel, added another chapter to their recent record of discoveries of U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy vessels lost during World War II. This particular expedition brought the added bonus of finding the wrecks of a number of airplanes from the flattop’s embarked air group, which were spotted on the flight deck or blown overboard when she went down.
Among them was an F4F-3 Wildcat with an insignia of “Felix the Cat” insignia painted on it, which at first glance seemed out of place. True, Fighting Squadron (VF) 3 had flown from the deck of the carrier earlier in World War II, but by the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea May 7-8, 1942, VF-3 was based ashore in Hawaii.
However, a closer inspection of the historical record reveals that prior to going aboard Lexington on April 15, 1942 for what would be the ship’s final cruise, VF-2 took possession of nineteen of VF-3’s Wildcats for the upcoming voyage. In addition, twelve pilots from the “Felix the Cat” squadron transferred to VF-2. As part of the squadron’s organization of its airplanes, maintainers assigned all of them new side numbers. With the press of events, evidently no effort was made to mask the markings the VF-3 aircraft already had on them, notably the squadron insignia, Japanese “Rising Sun” flags that signified air-to-air kills, and silhouettes of bombs to denote air-to-ground attacks.
One of the former VF-3 airplanes was given the side number F-5 and assigned to Lt. Albert O. Vorse, Jr., who had flown combat with the “Felix the Cat” squadron. This was the airplane photographed by Petrel’s submersible.
Clues to the aircraft’s history, and to whom it was assigned in VF-3, abounded. The four Japanese battle flags indicated that it was someone with claims of four kills, who also had participated in a bombing mission, the latter noted by the black 30 lb. fragmentation bomb painted next to one of the four Japanese flags. F4F-3 Wildcats did not drop many bombs, so it did not take long to discover that during VF-3’s combat in February-March 1942, there was only one instance of a bombing mission. It came on March 10, 1942, against a Japanese airfield at Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea. Four Wildcat pilots dropped 30-lb. fragmentation bombs. They were Vorse, Lt. j.g. Robert Morgan, Lt. Noel A.M. Gayler and Ensign Dale Peterson.
Research into the air-to-air tally for VF-3 shows that only one pilot could claim that number. During Gayler’s time in VF-3, he participated in two air-to-air actions. He claimed one bomber shot down and two shared kills on Feb. 20, 1942. He also shot down one aircraft on the March 10, 1942 strike in which he also dropped bombs. With shared kills, plane captains oftentimes painted a full Japanese battle flag on the side of their pilots’ airplanes.
Confirmation of the fact that this was Gayler’s assigned airplane in VF-3 came upon closer examination of some white lettering that appears in Petrel‘s photograph beneath encrustation on the fuselage right below the canopy rail. One can make out the white letters “GA___R.” Interestingly, when Gayler transferred into VF-2 as squadron XO, he did not retain the airplane with his combat record painted on the fuselage. Instead, he was assigned aircraft F-13.
During the air action at Coral Sea, Gayler flew escort for a strike against Japanese carriers on May 8, during which he engaged in air-to-air action that resulted in his being credited with two kills and one probable kill. He landed back aboard Lexington with the ship already heavily damaged by a Japanese air attack. He was never able to launch from the ship again and was on board later in the day when the order was given by Lexington skipper Captain Ted Sherman to abandon ship.
In addition to Gayler, who received three awards of the Navy Cross for his actions during February-March 1942, Lexington‘s crew included a Sailor named Harry Binkley Harris, Sr, one of four brothers who served in World War II. Like Gayler, Harris also went over the side to escape the mortally wounded ship. Little could either one of them know that their lives would be linked through service at the highest echelons of the Navy. On Sept. 1, 1972, now-Admiral Noel A.M. Gayler assumed the duties as the ninth commander of U.S. Pacific Command. More than forty years later, on May 27, 2015, the 24th PACOM commander read his orders appointing him to the position. That man, Admiral Harry Binkley Harris, Jr., is the son and namesake of one Lexington Sailor and successor to another — two men, shipmates who on a fateful day in World War II, went into the waters of the Coral Sea after participating in history’s first carrier-on-carrier combat action and, for the first time in the war, stopping the Japanese war machine in its tracks.