Intrepid Aviators tells the true story of Torpedo Squadron 18 (VT-18), whose airmen were among the very first to face one of Japan's monster Yamato class battleships in combat. On the morning of October 24, 1944, in the heart of the Sibuyan Sea, six young naval aviators and their crewmen, flying TBM-1C Avengers, braved a maelstrom of intense anti-aircraft fire to attack the super-battleship Musashi, the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The pilots' mission was to prevent Musashi, her sister super-battleship Yamato, and the huge naval armada of which they were a part, from inflicting unspeakable damage on the American transports and supply ships that were supporting General Douglas MacArthur's massive amphibious assault at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Making torpedo runs at low altitude and high airspeed, six torpedo planes from VT-18 twisted violently from side to side to evade enemy anti-aircraft fire; they pressed home their attack to within a mile of the massive warships before releasing their heavy torpedoes. Only four of these torpedo planes survived the enemy fusillade and returned to their ship, the aircraft carrier Intrepid. Later in the day, more torpedo plane pilots from VT-18, joined by fighter and dive-bombers from the same air group, took up the attack. Intrepid's first strike was follwed by a second and third, and by air strikes throughout the day from navy fliers operating from other American carriers in the Philippine Sea. As the sun set on October 24, the great Musashi, believed by her crew to be the embodiment of the Japanese nation and indestructible, rolled over and sank, taking with her more than twelve hundred officers and men and leaving nine hundred more adrift in the Sibuyan Sea.
This engagement marked the first sinking of a Japanese battleship on the high seas by American naval aviators. In the days that followed, VT-18's torpedo plane pilots, joined by fighter and dive-bomber pilots from Intrepid, flew more harrowing missions against the Japanese fleet as the United States Third Fleet sought to crush Japanese naval power in the western Pacific.
Intrepid Aviators is based on the archival record, diaries of participants, and on interviews with squadron members, including Ensign Willard M. Fletcher, USNR, who piloted one of the six torpedo planes that targeted Musashi in the first wave.
Ensign Fletcher's trial by fire is a principal focus of the story. His torpedo explodes in Musashi's hull, starboard side amidships, and he scores the first confirmed aerial torpedo hit on a Yamato class warship. But Fletcher's airplane is mortally wounded by Musashi's anti-aircraft gunners, and he crash-lands in the Sibuyan Sea. As he clambers out of the cockpit of his rapidly sinking airplane, Fletcher discovers that his two crewmen have been killed and that he must now begin a new struggle for survival in the jungles of the Philippines.
VT-18's torpedo plane pilots helped to blunt the massive Philippine counter-offensive that Japanese strategists hoped would lead to a decisive defeat of the United States Navy and persuade the American government to sue for peace. VT-18's torpeckers were among the last participants in the dangerous and problematic game of aerial torpedo attack against capital warships. Of the twenty-eight pilots who put to sea with VT-18 in August 1944, fifteen were awarded the Navy Cross (the United States Navy's highest decoration for valor) for their heroism during the running sea-air fight between October 24 and 26, 1944, three of the most intense days of carrier combat in aviation history.