On Armistice Day 1943, 25 years after the end of the First World War, then Ensign Charles "Billy" Watts shot down his first enemy aircraft on his first day in combat while flying the Grumman F6F Hellcat.
His Navy career started in May 1942, five months after the U.S. joined World War II, when Watts completed his second year of college at East Texas State University and decided he wanted to be a Navy pilot. "I didn't join because I was afraid to be drafted," said Watts. "I joined because I wanted to join the fight." Watts enrolled in the Naval Reserve V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet program on June 5, 1942, at Naval Air Station Dallas and earned his wings in March 1943 in Corpus Christi, Texas. In June 1943, Watts joined Fighting Squadron Eighteen (VF-18) as a Hellcat fighter pilot on the newly commissioned USS Bunker Hill (CV 17).
In the fall of 1943, Bunker Hill joined USS Essex (CV 9) and USS Independence (CVL 22) and headed for the battle zone. Watts completed his first aviation combat mission on November 11, 1943, in the bombing of Rabaul. "That was our first day in combat," said Watts. "There were 45 of us assigned to the fighter squadron, and of those, there were about three who had combat experience. First day and we didn't know what we were getting into."
Watts had a close call that morning when he saw Japanese tracers near his left wing. "It scared the fool out of me," said Watts. "But my division leader saw what was happening. He double backed and came and shot the guy. The Japanese pilot bailed out of his plane and we finished our dive without further incident."
According to Watts, his air group completed their first mission with minimal aircraft loss and significant damage to the Japanese. The air group returned to the carrier for rearming and refueling when the Japanese started attacking the strike group. Watts sat in his aircraft waiting for a break from the Japanese bombs so he could be launched into the attack. "It was my lucky day," said Watts. "I dodged a bullet that morning at the raid and when they launched me, just as I left the deck, there was a Japanese dive bomber who made a run on the carrier. He was about 50 feet above the water and about 200 yards in front of me. My guns weren't charged, so I charged my guns, turned on the switch and started shooting. I had never shot anyone before but I hit him and he went in the water. That was my very first day of combat."
Watts completed his first tour in March 1944 after continuing to fight battles at Tarawa, Macon and Marshall Islands. He was granted leave and returned to Alameda in May 1944, where he joined Fighting Squadron Seventeen (VF-17). The squadron continued training in California, then went to Naval Air Station Hilo in Hawaii, and finally to Guam where they waited for the USS Hornet (CV 12) to return from the Philippines. In February 1945, VF-17 replaced another air group on the USS Hornet. They made raids on Chichijima and supported the invasion of Iwo Jima. According to Watts, VF-17 stayed and fought the Battle of Okinawa from early March until they left on June 8, 1945. Watts was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as pilot of a carrier-based Navy fighter plane and VF-17 division leader, in action against enemy Japanese forces in Kure Bay, Japan, March 19, 1945.
"We went through a space, about 20-25 miles that was the godliest anti-aircraft fire you've ever seen," said Watts. "The fiercest, the most intense that I saw anywhere out there at any time. I talked to a lot of guys who were out there on the same day and every one of them agreed that they've never seen anything like it." According to the Navy Cross Citation, Watts "dived through intense enemy antiaircraft fire to press home a strafing attack on a Japanese aircraft carrier. Unable to release his bomb, he recovered altitude and led his division in a bombing attack on a cruiser. Subsequently, he aided in strafing a large tanker which was left burning, and assisted in an attack on an airfield which resulted in the destruction of six parked aircraft and the infliction of severe damage on airfield installations and hangars. He took part in strafing and exploding a locomotive and then joined in two strafing runs on a seaplane base, destroying two four-engined patrol planes and two single-engined seaplanes and inflicting serious damage on seven others."
Watts shot down a total of eight and three-quarters aircraft, including many Kamikazes, which earned him the prestigious title of American Fighter Ace. The distinguished group of elite aviators is comprised of 1,447 combat pilots who shot down at least five enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat from World War I to Vietnam. The American Fighter Aces were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for heroic military service throughout the history of aviation warfare at a ceremony at the Capitol's Emancipation Hall May 20, 2015.
Watts left active duty in September 1945 and continued to serve in the Navy Reserve until 1959. After getting married in December 1945, he moved to Dallas and attended Southern Methodist University, where he graduated with a business degree in 1947. He drilled with a Reserve unit at Naval Air Station Dallas and retired as a lieutenant commander. Watts, who is now 94 years old, lives in Shreveport, Texas, with his wife of 69 years. They have three children, five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
(Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the October issue of The Navy Reservist (TNR). It can be found on page 22.)