Belmont Club

Space Invaders Off Okinawa, 1945

AP Photo/File

The story of fighter directors is one of the last unknown stories of WW2. The epic of radar development is a familiar one. But less well known is the history of the information systems that made it work and the men who ran them. Innovative radar displays, combat information centers, helped, but, ultimately, it was the Combat Air Patrol quarterbacks, the superstar fighter directors (FDOs), who defended the fast carriers.

In the beginning there were no criteria for selecting those who might be most adept at the job. The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery reviewed British FDO selection tests but did not recommend their use. As time went by it was realized that the most successful FDOs seemed to have come from some occupation that required them to work intensely with other people, and to make themselves well understood. The following were found to do well at fighter direction: salesmen, lawyers, newspaper men, stock brokers, insurance people, and teachers, and they did not seem to need a technical background such as math, science, or engineering. What became apparent was the FDO had to be able to keep track of a large amount of changing details and make quick decisions based on the present situation and conditions. He was a manager of assets, and had to make best use of those assets in real time. He could not focus on any one aspect of the situation to the detriment of loosing track of the big picture, and he had to appear to others as being in complete control, and ahead of the situation.

One FDO in particular, ENS Charles D. Ridgway III, New York, Princeton University, was found to possess the “right stuff” by the fast carrier task forces. It is hard for us 21st-century people to appreciate how hard it was for men to perform data fusion in their heads in the pre-computer age.

To make best use of the new Yorktown’s expanded CIC facilities and radar suite, she needed a trained and experienced fighter direction officer. Her executive officer, CAPT Raymond R. Waller found one in LTJG Charles D. Ridgway III, a graduate of the first San Diego FDO class …

Ridgway’s job would be to keep track of every attacker and, depending on their location and trajectory, assign appropriate ships to engage each raid with gunfire. He also had to advise each ship, based on his radar picture, when it looked like they were about to be under torpedo attack, and where the attacker was. This would allow them to make evasive turns. The attacks came, assisted by Japanese flares as well as moonlight, and lasted for seven and one-half hours until the moon set. During that time, RADM Clark wrote of Ridgway’s performance; every one of his orders was correct; there was never any hesitation; and he never had to repeat an order. His voice was at all times calm, clear, and with perfect diction. People topside saw at least two torpedoes, one missing Yorktown’s bow, and one missing her stern; both misses thanks to adroit maneuvering cued by Ridgway. Clark was very thankful that he had given in to his executive officer and had agreed to take Ridgway on as his Fighter Director Officer.

He was so good that VADM John McCain would have grabbed him were it not for the machinations of his existing boss RADM Clark.

VADM McCain went aboard his flagship, the carrier Wasp, and in subsequent sorties, enemy aircraft occasionally strafed both Wasp and RADM Clark’s flagship, Hornet. When McCain asked Clark what could be done to stop the strafing, Clark replied he should get a good task force fighter director. McCain inquired how he could get one, and Clark made the mistake of mentioning his LT Ridgway as an example. That night Clark picked up a message from VADM McCain to Commander Naval Air Forces, Pacific (COMNAVAIRPAC) requesting Ridgway be permanently assigned to his staff. Fortunately the request was processed by Clark’s former executive officer now on COMNAVAIRPAC’s staff; who on the spot, invented a new qualification required for Ridgway’s career progression. He needed training at the Night Fighter Direction School, as NAS St. Simons Island near Brunswick, Georgia. Ridgway soon had orders to the school, after which he would return to RADM Clark’s staff.

By such underhanded tricks was the Pacific War won. The finest hour of the FDOs was defending against the kamikazes at Okinawa. The Japanese tactics were evolving all the time and it was no mean feat to block hundreds of totally committed incoming bandits.

An action report by Commander Task Force 58, RADM Marc Mitscher, telling of Kamikaze tactics during the Okinawa operation stated:

Fighter direction met its most strenuous test in the present Kyushu-Okinawa operations. Rarely have the enemy attacks been so cleverly executed and made with such reckless determination. These attacks were generally by single or few aircraft making their approach with radical changes in course and altitude, dispersing when intercepted and using cloud cover to every advantage. They tailed our friendlies home, used decoy planes, and in at any altitude or on the water. Only once during the entire present operation did the enemy attack in the old orthodox fashion.

To the end, nobody could tell for sure what the ‘right stuff’ was — only who had it.

One would think that the FDO in charge of task force or task group fighter direction operations would be a very experienced senior officer, most likely at least a commander. But this was not the case. It appeared that ability and results were more important than seniority. Some examples are LTJG John Connally, the Task Group 38.3 FDO at the Battle of Leyte Gulf; LT Stan Foote, ADM Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 CIC Officer during the Okinawa Campaign; LT John McGinnis, ADM Frederick Sherman’s TF 38 CIC Officer; RADM J. J. Clark’s TG 58.1, Fighter Director Officer LT Charlie Ridgway; and LT Nicholas Hammond, another task group FDO. There must have been yet another dimension to the characteristics that made a good FDO; could it be relative youth?

There the mystery may have remained were it not for one new 21st-century insight: the video game. According to that reasoning, the FDOs were playing a 1940s version of Space Invaders off Okinawa.

A 17 April 2014 article in the Washington Post by Christopher Ingraham gives more insight to the question of age and its relationship to talent for the job of fighter direction. It is titled At age 24, brainpower begins to fizzle out, and it is about a research study done at Simon Frazer University in Canada. The study showed that there is a measurable drop in quick thinking performance that starts at about the age of twenty-four and it deteriorates with age. The researcher’s measurement tool was a computer game called Starcraft II…

Does this sound like an FDO’s job? The researchers found that the delay from the time a player scanned the playing field and when they made a decision was lowest among twenty-four year old participants, and beyond that age, the lag increased proportionately with years. They found that in a fifteen-minute game, the difference in totaled time lags between a thirty-nine year-old and a twenty-four year-old was thirty seconds, a very significant delay in a game where the players must perform hundreds of actions per minute. The researchers also found that experience or expertise could not make older player’s performance any better; they could not substitute experience for speed. Could this be why relatively junior, and young, FDOs showed up so often in charge of the extremely responsible task of running task force and task group air defense?

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