FIGHTING SQUADRON THIRTY SEVEN (VF-37)
Frank Sarris poses happily in front of a VF-37 Hellcat during the Leyte campaign in which he claimed two Japanese aircraft destroyed and one more probably destroyed. During that campaign the pilots of VF-37 provided little support to the troops landing in Leyte Gulf, but proved themselves in aerial combat and attacks on the strongest enemy ships, showing aggressiveness and skill to a high degree. (Joan Sarris)
Α VF-37 F6F-5 lands on USS Sangamon during operations over Leyte in October 1944. (Νational Archives 80-G-295046)
Frank J. Sarris was born on December 8, 1917, in Newport, Rhode Island, in the USA. His parents were Greek immigrants, John Sarris and Maria Lafiotis, both originally from the beautiful island of Skiathos. Frank's father first arrived in the USA between 1900 and 1905 to obtain American citizenship. To achieve this, John Sarris volunteered for the U.S. Army during World War I, serving in France with the 6th Engineer Regiment before returning injured to the USA. In November 1915, he married Maria in Providence, Rhode Island, and later, after moving to Newport, they had four children: Rose (1916), Frank (1917), Koula (1919), and George (1922). Frank enlisted in the Rhode Island National Guard and served three years before being discharged. He then reenlisted in the National Guard for another four months before joining the U.S. Navy on November 1, 1939, as a "Seaman Apprentice" with a prospect of six years of service. In January 1940, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4), where the impressive sight of aircraft taking off and landing on the flight deck profoundly influenced young Frank. Due to the needs of the war, the Navy's requirements were reduced from the required two years of college or university studies, allowing Frank to apply for pilot training. On January 5, 1943, he reported to Pre-Flight Training School at the Naval Air Station in Athens, Georgia. On October 12, 1943, after completing all tests, Frank was designated an "Aviation Pilot 1st Class" and a few days later proudly wore the "Gold Wings of a Naval Aviator." He underwent training on Wildcat aircraft and qualified as a pilot capable of operating from aircraft carriers at NAS Glenview and then received further training on the more advanced F6F Hellcat.
On May 17, 1944, he reported for duty with VF-37, which belonged to Air Group 37, operating from the aircraft carrier USS Sangamon (CVE-26). His initial missions were carried out during operations in the Marianas Islands, where the Americans inflicted significant losses on Japanese naval aviation in a series of air battles that became known as "The Marianas Turkey Shoot." Unfortunately, for the pilot of Greek descent, VF-37 was assigned to cover specific forces of Task Force 52 and did not engage with Japanese aircraft. On July 10, the invasion of Guam began. Sarris and his fellow pilots provided air cover for the American forces on the island, conducting escort missions for bombers. Although they did not engage in large-scale aerial combat, their main tasks were strafing missions since the USS Sangamon was a reserve carrier. Frank logged several flight hours, and he completed ten combat missions. He returned to operations during the American invasion of Leyte in the Philippines. On October 18 and 19, 1944, just before the landings on Leyte Island, the carrier-based pilots, including Sarris, conducted a series of pre-strike attacks against Japanese airfields and various other installations in the Leyte and Visayan Islands. In the early morning of October 24, Sarris sat in the cockpit of an F6F-5 Hellcat as part of a four-aircraft patrol (CAP - Combat Air Patrol). At 07:45, the signal for take-off was given, and the four Hellcats headed for their CAP station. A few minutes later, they spotted a mixed group of aircraft consisting of 4-5 twin-engine Kawasaki Ki-48 Lilly bombers and Mitsubishi Ki-21 Sally bombers heading towards the American ships concentrated in the Leyte Gulf. The Grumman fighters encountered the enemy formation and selected their targets. Three bombers were shot down, one Lilly by Sarris himself. On the morning of October 25, 1944, during the battle in the Surigao Strait, Frank attacked an enemy destroyer. Shortly after, as a member of a nine-aircraft formation targeting the Japanese cruiser IJN Suzuya, with a displacement of 13,670 tons, he caused damage with his gunfire, paving the way for the bombers and torpedo planes to strike. As the battle continued with unabated intensity, the VF-37 pilots were forced to break off their attacks due to the appearance of a Japanese fighter force consisting of approximately 10 Mitsubishi A6M Zero and Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar fighters. The VF-37 F6F-5 Hellcats, having gained the advantage of altitude and surprise, engaged with five of the enemy aircraft while the rest disengaged. The American planes shot down five enemy interceptors and two others as probable, with Sarris downing one Ki-44 Tojo, out of the two that rushed to support the Zeros and Oscars, and another Zero as probable. The critical fuel situation forced them to land at Tacloban Airport in the interior of Leyte, which had recently been captured by the Americans. Subsequently, Frank returned to the United States, and on February 16, 1945, he was promoted to Lieutenant.
Few photos exist of VF-37 Hellcats operating from USS Sangamon (CVE-26) during the Battle of Samar in October 1944. The squadron flew a mix of F6F-3s and F6F-5s, the former carrying the three-tone paint scheme while the latter wore the overall Glossy Sea Blue ANA 623, like the '715' featured here. The fighter carries a white band on its tail, which was the identification for Air Group 37, and only the last two digits of the aircraft’s fuselage number are repeated on the cowling and the tail. As was common for Grumman fighters painted in overall Glossy Sea Blue, the national marking lacks a blue outline. Note the extensive wear, caused by exhaust gases, on the fuselage paint. Frank Sarris was credited with two confirmed victories and three probable (2 two of them unconfirmed) while flying Fighting Thirty-Seven F6F-5s. (Copyright Gaetan Marie)
During his service with the VX-4 Evaluators, Frank Sarris was engaged with the operational testing of the new F4H-1F (F-4A) Phantom and the integration and evaluation of air-launched guided missiles, specifically the Sidewinder and the Sparrow. He frequently flew BuNo 146820, seen above, and was also photographed with it and various McDonnell engineers in public relations photos which emphasized the relationship between the aeronautical company and the US Navy. (Joan Sarris)
On June 1, 1945, Frank Sarris was transferred to VF-5, which flew his beloved Hellcat aircraft. During that period, his unit was based at the Naval Air Station Klamath Falls in Oregon (NAS Klamath Falls). He remained there until around mid-1946 when he was reassigned once again. His new unit was VBF-18, and his service there marked another significant milestone in his aviation career as he had the opportunity to fly a new type of aircraft. During the second half of 1946, the unit operated F8F-1 Bearcat aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32), covering the eastern Atlantic maritime area. On October 22, 1946, Frank Sarris retired with honors while serving in the Atlantic Air Command, thus concluding a successful career. Five years later, he took on the role of test pilot and captain of the pioneering "Super Connie" aircraft, which was essentially the precursor to airborne radar. After flying the EC-121 Warning Star, Sarris transitioned to the legendary F-4 Phantom II, which marked the most significant moment of his service and served as the crowning achievement of his admirable and captivating aviation career. In the early 1960s, Lieutenant Commander Frank Sarris was selected as one of the Navy test pilots responsible for operational evaluations of the renowned Phantom before its full deployment in the Fleet and engagement in combat operations. The Greek-American pilot took great pride in this period of his career, during which he had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with individuals who played significant roles in the creation and development of the F-4 Phantom. One of them was David S. Lewis, the Director of Aerodynamics at McDonnell Aircraft Company and the program director for the fighter's construction and evolution. Frank had close cooperation with Lewis during his service in VX-4 Evaluators towards the end of 1962. At Naval Air Station Point Mugu in California, where VX-4 operated, Sarris supervised the Maintenance Control and Repair Department. The veteran aviator passed away on January 26, 1997, in Bonita, San Diego, California, at the age of 80. He was married to Carmella Virgadamo, of Italian descent, and they had two daughters, Marie and Joan.
More details about Frank Sarris and his career can be reached in Volume C of the "GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPITS" series of books
RESTORING FRANK SARRIS CLAIMS
Frank Olynk's research regarding the American victories which led to his famous kill lists is the top reference on the subject for every researcher. We were aware that Frank Sarris was credited with just one kill in the USN list however, while researching the after-action reports we did find that the Greek parentage pilot had also one more kill as well as one more as probable. We reported our findings to Frank for crosschecking and we received the following answer on July 15, 2017.
"Dimitrios, I see what is going on with these reports now, and in fact, I have all of them. There are three sets of ACA (Aircraft Action Reports). First are the ACA reports prepared by VF-37; these are in RG 18, Action Reports, Box 450. Then, are the ACA reports prepared by VT-37; these are in Box 523. Finally, there are the ACA reports prepared by CVLG-37 (the Air Group itself); these are in Box 373. There are also ACA reports for VC-37, the earlier version of VT-37 (equipped with SBDs and TBMs). There are also the Action Reports of Sangamon itself (which at this point I only have for Torch). And finally the Deck Log (RG 24) and War Diary (RG 18) of Sangamon itself. My original copies of the ACA reports covered only VF-37; these were microfilmed by the Navy back in the 1980s. The reports for Air Group 37 were not copied, and I did not review their reports when I copied them a few years ago at NARA II. There were a few additional victories included in the Air Group ACA reports. In particular, ACA report #46 which is where you found the additional claims of Sarris. I have now gone through the Air Group reports, and added the additional claims into my files. For which I thank you for bringing these to my attention."
We are very happy that our research added something more to Frank Olynk's excellent work as well as for having the honor to exchange our thoughts on the subject. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago but his work will continue to be the holy grail for every researcher of aviation history during the wars. RIP Frank.