On the afternoon of Jan. 12, 1945, VF-11 ‘Sundowners’ F6F Hellcats launched from USS Hornet (CV-12) to attack Tan Son Nhut airport, in French Indochina. Armed with 0.50-cal machine guns and 5-inch High-Velocity Aerial Rockets (HVARs), F6F pilots strafed parked Japanese aircraft and fired their projectiles into buildings and hangars. Leading the second section in Lt James S Swope’s division was Lt(jg) H Blake Moranville.
Nicknamed ‘Rabbit’ because of the similarity of his surname to a famous pre-war baseball player, Moranville was a 21 year-old ace with six victories to his credit.
As explained by Barrett Tillman with Henk Van der Lugt in their book VF-11/111 ‘Sundowners’ 1942-95, Moranville received his U.S. Navy wings in July 1943 and joined VF-11 as its junior pilot.
In October 1943 the unit traded its F4F-4s for F-6F-3s. Not long after acquiring Hellcats, the`Sundowners’ also acquired a mascot. All pilots had to qualify on the pistol range, and the small-arms instructor gave Lt Gordon Cady one of a litter of Boston Bull Terrier pups. The dog was christened ‘Gunner’ and Cady delegated Blake Moranville, then the youngest pilot in the squadron, to be its caretaker.
Blake and `Gunner’ soon became inseparable until the mission of Jan. 12, 1945.
During a low-level pass over the target in fact Moranville F6F-5 BuNo 70680, call sign ‘Ginger 30’, was hit by ground fire. As he pulled off the target Moranville’s wingman called ‘Hey “Rabbit”, you’re on fire!’
The fighter’s Pratt & Whitney R2800 was leaking oil, which had ignited, although it soon burned out. With his engine gauges showing falling oil pressure and increasing temperature, Moranville knew he had only minutes remaining in the air. He headed southwest away from Tan Son Nhut, flying 75 miles before his engine seized. ‘I saw a big rice paddy and decided to belly in there’, Moranville recalled. ‘I set up a landing pattern and locked my canopy back, tightened my shoulder harness and dropped my tailhook – the latter would tell me when I had gotten down to within a few feet of the water. I kept my flaps up until I’d cleared a row of trees’.
Moranville executed a successful landing and was escorted to temporary safety by friendly villagers. They summoned a Vichy official, who delivered the aviator to Saigon’s central prison where American fliers were kept away from the Japanese. Eventually, Moranville’s group walked to safety with a French Foreign Legion unit, reaching Dien Bien Phu and being flown to safety in China.
On the day that Moranville went down, concern was somewhat alleviated by the fact that ‘Rabbit’ was seen walking around his aeroplane, and five days later Hornet received word that he was with the French. But ‘Gunner’ the mascot was despondent over the loss of his master. Happily, they were reunited several months later in Nebraska. When the aviator returned home he found that ‘”Gunner” was my dad’s dog’.
The following video tells the story of VF-11 Fighter Ace, H.B. “Rabbit” Moranville and his puppy “Gunner”.
VF-11/111 ‘Sundowners’ 1942-95 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
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