TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve
Other Marine Aces
Although the colorful time of the Solomons Campaign,
and the equally colorful men like Boyington and Hanson, were gone, other
Leatherneck aviators achieved sizeable scores, and a measure of fame, if
only within their operating areas and squadrons.
VMF-214's five-month tour of combat created eight
aces, including Pappy Boyington. The Black Sheep accounted for 97
Japanese aircraft downed. VMF-215's tour lasted four-and-a-half months,
and Bob Hanson and his squadron mates the squadron's roster
included 10 aces destroyed 137 enemy aircraft, 106 in the last
Besides Boyington, the Black Sheep alumnus who had
one of the most interesting careers was John Bolt. Then-First Lieutenant
Bolt shot down six aircraft in the Pacific. Ten years later, now-Major
Bolt flew F-86s as an exchange pilot with the U.S. Air Force in Korea.
During a three-month period, May-July 1953, he shot down six
Russian-built MiG-15s, becoming the Marine Corps' first and only jet
ace, and one of a very select number of pilots who became aces in two
Edward Overend, shown here in a Wildcat in San Diego in 1945, flew with
the Flying Tigers, shooting down five Japanese aircraft, thus becoming
one of the first American aces of the Pacific war, albeit under another
country's colors. Maj Overend scored 3.5 kills while leading VMF-321,
for a combined total of 8.5 victories in P-40Bs and F4U-1As.
Defense Photo (USMC) 47912
While Lieutenant Robert Hanson was the star of
VMF-215 for a few short weeks, there were two captains who were just as
busy. Donald N. Aldrich eventually scored 20 kills, while Harold L.
Spears accounted for 15 Japanese planes. The two aces were among the
senior flight leaders of VMF-215.
Don Aldrich had been turned down by recruiters before
Pearl Harbor because he was married. Like many other eager young men of
his generation, he went across the Canadian border and enlisted in the
Royal Canadian Air Force in February 1941. He got his wings that
November. But the RCAF put the new aviator to work as an instructor.
When the U.S. entered the war, Aldrich had no trouble rejoining his
countrymen, and eventually got his wings of gold as a Marine aviator,
following which, he headed for the Solomons. From August 1943 to
February 1944, in three combat tours, Captain Aldrich gained an
impressive number of kills, 20. Although he survived the war, he died in
an operational accident in 1947.
Harold Spears was commissioned a Marine second
lieutenant and got his Marine commission and his wings in August 1942.
He joined VMF-215 as the squadron wandered around the various forward
bases near Bougainville. Spears wanted to make the service his career,
and shortly after finishing his combat tour, during which he shot down
15 Japanese planes, he was assigned to El Toro, and eventually to a new
fighter squadron, VMF-462.
One of the most successful but least known Marine
Corsair aces was First Lieutenant Wilbur J. Thomas, whom Barrett Tillman
called "one of the deadliest fighter pilots the Corps ever produced." He
scored 18.5 kills while flying with VMF-213. Thomas' combat career is
remarkable because he scored most of his kills in a one-month period
during the hotly contested landings on Rendova and Vangunu islands in
After staying in the rear area of the New Hebrides,
Thomas was finally transferred to the combat zone. He flew his first
missions in June and July 1943. His mission on 30 June was a CAP mission
over amphibious landings at Wickham Anchorage on the southern tip of New
fighter-bombers prepare to launch for a raid from their weapon, the Zero
toted light bombs as required, and ended the war Bougainville base in
late 1943. Originally an air superiority as one of the primary aircraft
used by the Kamikaze suicide pilots. Author's Collection
Fifteen Zeros pounced Thomas's fighters. After he had
become separated from his group, seven Zeros had attacked the lone F4U,
but, undeterred by the odds, Thomas turned into the Japanese, eventually
shooting down four of them. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying
Cross for this mission. Three weeks later, on 17 July, Thomas and his
wingman attacked a group of Japanese bombers and their Zero escort, and
shot down one of the bombers.
Thomas was on the receiving end of enemy fire on 23
September. After shooting down three Zeros, and splitting a fourth with
his wingman, the young ace found he had taken hits in the oil lines. His
engine seized and he glided toward the water, eventually bailing out at
3,000 feet. He scrambled into his rubber raft and waited for rescue. He
paddled for five hours to keep from drifting to enemy positions. After
10 hours, a Consolidated Catalina flying boat (PBY) set down beside him
and brought him home.
By the time VMF-213 left for the States in December,
Wilbur Thomas had scored 16.5 kills in five dogfights. He returned for
another combat tour, this time on board the carrier Essex (CV 9)
headed for the South China Sea and Japanese bases in Southeast Asia. He
added two more kills to his previous score when he took out two Zeros
near Tokyo during Essex's first strike against the Japanese Home
Islands on the afternoon of 16 February 1945.
Again, as did several of the young aces who managed
to survive the war, now-Captain Thomas died in a postwar flying mishap
Robert Galer with his ubiquitous baseball cap leans against his Wildcat.
"Barbara Jane" was a high school sweetheart. (He didn't marry her.) The
square panel directly beneath the aircraft's wing was an observational
window. Photo courtesy of BGen Robert Galer, USMC (Ret)
By mid-1944, the war had moved on, past the Solomons
and Bougainville. closer to Japan and into the final battles in the
Philippines and on to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. There were still occasional
encounters in these now-rear areas until the end of the war, and other
Marine aviators became aces, but the end of the Solomons Campaign also
saw the end of the hey day of the aces.
Fighter pilots and their missions sometimes fall into
a nondescript category. By themselves, they rarely decide the outcome of
major battles or campaigns, although exceptions might well be
Guadalcanal and the Battle of Britain.
The Cactus fighters defended their base daily against
enemy raids, and the Marine Corps aces were colorful. They established a
tradition of dedication, courage, and skill for their successors in
future generations of military aviators. It is 50 years since John
Smith, Bob Galer, Marion Carl, Joe Foss, and Greg Boyington led their
squadrons into the swirling dogfights over the Solomons. But the legacy
these early Marine aces left to their modern successors lives on in a
new era of advanced weapons and technology.
Researching the Aces' Scores
Meticulous investigation by Dr. Frank Olynyk has
refined and changed the established list of aces. In most respects, he
has reduced by one or two kills an individual's score, but in some
instances, he has generated enough doubt about the vital fifth kill that
at least two aviators have lost their status as aces during World War
II. One man, Technical Sergeant John W. Andre of night-fighter squadron
VMF(N)-541, shot down four Japanese planes in the Pacific, and scored a
fifth kill in Korea. Thus, he is a bonafide ace, but not solely by his
service in World War II.
In an article published in the Summer 1981 issue of
Fortitudine, the bulletin of the Marine Corps History and Museums
Division, Dr. Olynyk discussed the problems associated with compiling
records of kills, especially for the Marine Corps. Whether an enemy
aircraft which was last seen descending with a trail of smoke should be
considered destroyed cannot always be decided. Thus, several "smokers"
were claimed as definite kills.
He also commented, "...most of the pilots whose
scores are subject to some uncertainty are all from the 1942-early 1943
period when air combat was the heaviest. War diaries from this period
are often incomplete, or even non-existent..."
Retired Brigadier General Galer put the question of
aces and their kills in perspective. In a recent letter to the author he
wrote, "Aces' scores are not an exact number. There were too many people
shooting at the same targets. The enemy might sustain some battle
damage, such as in the engine, but they could run for another five
minutes. It was tough to be accurate."
Then-Captain Stanley S. Nicolay, who shot down three
Bettys during his tour with VMF-224, also commented on the problems of
simply engaging the enemy.
"There were a lot of people out there who didn't get
any (kills), but they worked their tails off. Shooting down an airplane
is 90 percent luck; you're lucky if you find one. Most of the time, you
can't. That sky gets bigger and bigger the higher you go.
"We had no radar. Even our radios weren't very good.
We depended on our sight. Look, look, look, with our heads on a
USMC Aces During the Period August 1942-April 1944
* Awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul J. Fontana. 5 victories.
Retired as a major general.
Major Archie G. Donahue. 14 victories.
Major Robert B. Fraser. 6 victories.
Captain Jefferson J. DeBlanc*. 9 victories (1 in F4Us).
Captain James G. Percy. 6 victories (1 in F4Us).
First Lieutenant John B. Maas, Jr. 5.5 victories.
Lieutenant Colonel Donald K. Yost. 8 victories (2 in F4Us).
Lieutenant Colonele Leonard K. Davis. 5 victories.
Major Joseph H. Reinburg. 7 victories.
Major Francis E. Pierce, Jr. 6 victories.
Major Perry L. Shuman. 6 victories in F4Us.
Captain Joseph J. Foss*. 26 victories.
Retired as a brigadier general in Air National Guard
Captain Thomas H. Mann, Jr. 9 victories.
Also flew with VMF-224.
Captain Ernest A. Powell. 5 victories.
Captain Robert M. Baker 5 victories.
Captain Donald C. Owen. 5 victories.
Captain Kenneth M. Ford. 5 victories in F4Us.
First Lieutenant William P. Marontate. 13 victories.
First Lieutenant William B. Freeman. 6 victories.
First Lieutenant Roger A. Haberman. 6.5 victories.
Captain Gregory K. Koesch. 8.5 victories.
Second Lieutenant Cecil J. Doyle 5 victories.
Second Lieutenant Joseph L. Narr 7 victories.
Captain Kenneth A. Wash*. 21 victories in F4Us.
Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer*. 10 victories.
Major Frank C. Drury. 6 victories (1 in F4Us).
Also flew with VMF-223.
Major Robert E. Stout. 6 victories. Flew with VMF-224.
Captain Jack E. Couger. 10 victories.
Captain Phillip C. DeLong. 11-1/6 victories in
World War II, two victories in Korea (all in F4Us).
Major Hugh M. Elwood. 5.1 victories.
Retired as a lieutenant general.
Captain Loren D. Everton. 10 victories.
Also flew with VMF-223.
Warrant Officer Henry B. Hamilton. 7 victories.
Also flew with VMF-223.
Major Frederick R. Payne, Jr. 5.5 victories.
Also flew with VMF-223.
VMF-213 (all kills in F4Us):
Lieutenant Colonel Gregory J. Weissenberger. 5 victories.
Major James N. Cupp. 12 victories.
Captain Sheldon O. Hall. 6 victories.
Captain John L. Morgan, Jr. 8.5 victories.
Captain Edward O. Shaw. 14.5 victories.
Captain Wilbur J. Thomas. 18.5 victories.
VMF-214 (all kills in F4Us):
Major Gregory Boyington*. 28 official victories.
Captain William N. Case. 8 victories.
Captain Arthur R. Conant. 6 victories.
Captain Donald H. Fisher. 6 victories.
Captain John F. Bolt, Jr. 6 victories in World War II, six victories in Korea.
Captain Christopher L. Magee. 9 victories.
Captain Robert W. McClurg. 7 victories.
Captain Paul A. Mullen. 6.5 victories.
Captain Edwin L. Olander. 5 victories.
First Lieutenant Alvin J. Jensen. 7 victories.
VMF-215 (all kills in F4Us):
Captain Donald N. Aldrich. 20 victories.
Captain Harold L. Spears. 15 victories.
First Lieutenant Robert M. Hanson*. 25 victories.
Lieutenant Colonel Nathan T. Post, Jr. 8 victories.
Captain Harold E. Segal. 12 victories.
Captain William N. Snider. 11.5 victories.
Captain James E. Swett*. 15.5 victories (7 in F4Fs).
Captain Albert E. Hacking, Jr. 5 victories (in F4Fs).
VMF-222 (all in F4Us):
Major Donald H. Sapp (later changed to Stapp). 10 victories.
Major John L. Smith*. 19 victories.
Major Hyde Phillips. 5 victories.
Captain Marion E. Carl. 18.5 victories (2 in F4Us).
Retired as a major general.
Captain Kenneth D. Frazier. 13.5 victories (1 in F4Us).
Captain Fred E. Gutt. 8 victories.
Captain Orvin H. Ramlo. 5 victories.
First Lieutenant Charles Kendrick. 5 victories.
First Lieutenant Eugene A. Trowbridge. 6 victories.
Second Lieutenant Zenneth A. Pond. 6 victories.
Lieutenant Colonel John F. Dobbin. 7.5 victories.
Major Robert E. Galer*. 14 victories.
Retired as a brigadier general.
Major Charles M. Kunz. 8 victories.
Captain George L. Hollowell. 8 victories.
First Lieutenant Jack Pittman, Jr. 5 victories.
VMF-321 (all in F4Us):
Major Edmund F. Overend. 8.5 victories, including
5 with the Flying Tigers (3.5 in F4Us).
Captain Robert B. See. 5 victories.
Henderson Field-Night. Watercolor by Sgt Hugh Laidman in
the Marine Corps Art Collection