Fabled Fifteen – Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Review by Stuart Forth.

The Pacific theatre of the Second World War is not my normal area of interest and my knowledge of the battles and geography of the Pacific are patchy at best. However, on reading the blurb for Fabled Fifteen, I was intrigued to learn more about Carrier Air Group 15 and the amazing exploits it achieved over a relatively short time span. 

From 19 May to 14 November 1944, while on board the USS Essex, Air Group 15 took part in two of the greatest naval encounters in history – the First and Second Battles of the Philippine Sea (known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot) and the Battles of Leyte Gulf – which ultimately led to the demise of Japanese naval power. During this time, the Grumman Hellcats of Fighting 15 scored 312 enemy aircraft destroyed (of which 68.5 were shot down in one day), 33 probably destroyed and 65 damaged in air combat, with 348 destroyed, 161 probably destroyed and 129 damaged on the ground. Twenty-six Fighting 15 pilots became aces, including the commanding officer, Commander David McCampbell, who became the US Navy’s ‘Ace of Aces’ with 34 victories and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. The Curtiss Helldivers of Bombing Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadron 15’s Grumman Avengers sank 174,300 tons of enemy shipping, including the world’s largest battleship, Musashi, and Zuikaku, the last surviving aircraft carrier that took part in the Pearl Harbor attack. Every pilot of Torpedo 15 was awarded the Navy Cross during this tour. It all came at a terrible cost though. Of the 100 pilots who embarked on USS Essex in May, only 45 remained at the end of the cruise. Twenty-five percent of the losses during this deployment came in the last two weeks (Bombing 15 paid the highest price with fifteen pilots and seventeen gunners killed or missing in action).

In Fabled Fifteen, the author has vividly captured the events leading to these statistics and managed to incorporate them into the wider context of the Pacific war without getting bogged down. The action seems to flow throughout the book, creating a fast-paced historical review of Air Group 15. The differences in US and Japanese carrier development and operation are explored as well as pilot training. All of the aircraft types of both sides are also looked at. This all helps to explain why Air Group 15 achieved such good results and gives the reader, if possessing little previous knowledge of this campaign (despite decent naval aviation knowledge in my case!), a good understanding of why the commanders of both sides made the decisions they did. There is a very good map of the Pacific included in the book, showing the myriad of islands referred to, which was immensely helpful and referred to frequently. The narrative is supported by two sections of black and white photos.

This is an action-packed book that, once started, is difficult to put down. Even with my limited knowledge of the Pacific war, I never felt lost as to what was going on, why and where. That is not to say this book is aimed at the ‘beginner’ as it would also appeal to the true historians and enthusiasts of the Pacific. It has sparked an interest in the Pacific war that will require further research, or should I say, further excuses to buy more books!

ISBN 978-1-61200-929-2

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