Four Hellcat fighter aircraft were scrambled from the deck of His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Formidable.
It was July 25, 1945, and war in the Pacific raged on.
Flying one of the Hellcats was Sub-Lieutenant (SLt) Bill Atkinson, a Canadian naval officer serving with the Royal Navy (RN).
Not long after taking off, incoming Japanese aircraft were detected. Two Hellcats were forced to return to the carrier for repairs so Atkinson assumed the lead of the remaining two Hellcats and was vectored out to intercept.
Under the full moon, Atkinson identified the bandits as big, single-engine Grace torpedo bombers and took his New Zealand wingman, SLt R.F. Mackie, into the attack.
Atkinson latched onto a pair of Graces and shot them both into the water while Mackie dumped the third. Then, in routing the other bandits, a fourth Grace was damaged and the enemy attack was completely broken up.
Atkinson was credited with shooting down three Grace torpedo bombers, establishing himself as a Canadian naval ace of the war in the Pacific. He is one of only 16 Second World War Fleet Air Arm pilots to achieve five or more air victories.
Joined the RCNVR in Winnipeg
A native of Manitoba, Atkinson volunteered for naval service in 1943 at the age of 19. On January 16 he was accepted into the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) at HMCS Chippawa in Winnipeg.
Unlike others Atkinson had no plans to go to sea on a convoy escort. Instead, he sought out and was accepted into a special program that provided pilots to the RN.
Atkinson immediately went overseas to the United Kingdom, for basic flying training as a Leading Naval Airman and then returned to Canada for Elementary Flight Training School and Service Flying Training School.
He received his pilot wings in April 1944 and after promotion to Sub-Lieutenant was posted to HMS Ravager for deck landing training on Supermarine Seafires, a naval version of the Spitfire adapted for operation from aircraft carriers. Later he was transferred to Royal Naval Air Station Puttalan in Ceylon for advanced flying training on the Hellcat.
The Hellcat was one of the finest carrier-borne fighters available at the time. In its wartime service with the U.S. Navy, Hellcat pilots were responsible for approximately 5,000 of the 6,500 Japanese aircraft that were shot down.
Strikes on oil fields
In December 1944 Atkinson was posted to the 1844 RN Hellcat Squadron aboard HMS Indomitable. Soon after, the RN fleet was asked to carry out a strike on the oil fields and tanks at Palembang, Sumatra.
The targets in the Palembang area were at Songei Gerong, which had been the East Indies oil refinery for the Standard Oil Company, and Pladjoe, the former Royal Dutch Shell refinery. These establishments represented 50 per cent of the oil used by Japan.
In January 1945, Atkinson flew his Hellcat as a combat air patrol during carrier-borne aircraft attacks against the oil refineries at Palembang. In this operation the allied forces downed 13 Japanese planes and damaged six at a cost of six Corsair fighter-bombers and one Hellcat.
In early April, Atkinson participated in strikes against the Sakishima Gunto Island group and in air strikes on Formosa. These raids, called Operation Iceberg, were designed to neutralize airfields that were being used by the Japanese to resupply Okinawa.
In the initial raid on the Miyako Airfield, Atkinson downed his first enemy plane as a wartime pilot, a Japanese “Betty” bomber, but he was only awarded a probable kill. On a subsequent raid he scored his first confirmed kill, a “Judy” bomber.
Six days later Atkinson shot down an enemy “Zero” which was credited to him as a confirmed kill before continuing to shoot down several other fighters and bombers. These achievements were not without cost. In an attack on Sakishima in May 1945, his aircraft was badly damaged by flak.
At the end of June, while Indomitable was undergoing refit, 1844 Squadron was relocated to HMS Formidable. Atkinson was in good company in Formidable as other Canadians were serving there at the time, including Lieutenant (Lt) Robert Hampton Gray.
Though the war was nearly over, the Fleet Air Arm still had business to do. On a clear and sunny day in August, Atkinson was the friend who helped Hampton Gray strap himself into his Corsair in preparation for a raid at Onagawa Bay, Japan.
In that day’s raid, Gray sank the Japanese destroyer Amakusa, but tragically was killed in the process. For his valor, Hampton Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Awarded Distinguished Service Cross
For his fearless flying Atkinson was awarded with a Mention in Despatches, followed by the Distinguished Service Cross “for gallant services in the Pacific, and for gallantry, skill and marked devotion to duty in the Far East.”
After the war, Atkinson stayed in the Navy. He served as a squadron leader and as a pilot for Banshee jet fighters. In 1958 he was posted to HMCS Nootka as Executive Officer, and after being promoted to Commander in 1962, assumed command of HMCS Haida. Later he became Commanding Officer of HMCS Venture, the Officer Training School.
Atkinson retired from the Navy in September 1973 and moved to Peachland, B.C. He died on July 18, 2015.
During the course of his naval career, Atkinson flew a total of 3,400 hours and accomplished 241 day deck landings and 34 night deck landings.