TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve
Guadalcanal: The Beginning of the Long Road Back
Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 23, the initial air unit
participating in the Guadalcanal operation, was assigned the mission of
supporting the ground operations of the 1st Marine Division as well the
air defense of the island once the landing had been made. MAG-23
included VMF-223 and -224, and VMSB-231 and -232. The fighter squadrons
flew the F4F-4, the Grumann Wildcat with folding wings and six
wing-mounted .50-caliber machine guns. The two VMSBs flew the Douglas
SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bomber. Another fighter squadron, VMF-212, under
Major Harold W. Bauer, was on the island of Efate in the New Hebrides,
while MAG-23 headquarters had yet to sail from Hawaii by the time
Marines hit the beaches on 7 August 1942. The first contingent of MAG-23
VMF-223 and VMSB-232 left Hawaii on board the escort
carrier USS Long Island (CVE 1). On 20 August, 200 miles from
Guadalcanal, the two squadrons launched toward their new home. VMF-224
(Captain Robert E. Galer) and VMSB-231 (Major Leo R. Smith) followed in
the aircraft transports USS Kitty Hawk (APV 1) and USS
Hammondsport (APV 2), and flew on to the island on 30 August.
While en route toward the launch point for Guadalcanal, Captain Smith
wisely decided to trade eight of his less experienced junior pilots for
eight pilots of VMF-212 who had more flight time and training in the F4F
than had Smith's fledglings.
Douglas SBD Dauntless divebomber fought in nearly every theater, flying
with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the U.S. Army (as the
A-24 Banshee). The SBD made its reputation in the Pacific, especially at
Midway and Guadalcanal. Author's Collection
The newly arrived squadrons barely had time to get
settled before they were in heavy action. Early on the 21st, the
Japanese sent a 900-man force to attack Henderson Field, named after
Major Lofton R. Henderson, a dive-bomber pilot killed at Midway. Around
mid-day, Captain Smith was leading a four-plane patrol north of Savo
Island heading to ward the Russell Islands with Second Lieutenants Noyes
McLennan and Charles H. Kendrick, and Technical Sergeant John Lindley.
The two lieutenants had 16 days of operational flight training in F4Fs,
and Lindley had been through ACTG, the Aircraft Carrier Training Group,
which, as part of its training syllabus, gave tyro pilots indoctrination
into fighter tactics.
Beyond Savo, six Zeros came straight at them from the
north, with an altitude advantage of 500 feet. Smith recognized the
Zeros immediately, although neither he nor any of the other three pilots
had ever seen one before. He turned his flight toward them and the Zeros
headed toward the F4Fs.
It was hard to say just what happened next except
that the Zero Smith was shooting at pulled up and he shot fairly well
into the belly of the enemy plane as it went by, only to find that now
he had two Zeros on his tail. Captain Smith dove toward Henderson Field
and the Japs broke away.
Members of VMF-224 pose by one of their fighters on
Guadalcanal in mid-September 1942. Rear row, left to right: 2dLt George
L. Hollowell, SSgt Clifford D. Garrabrant, 2dLt Robert A Jefferies, Jr.,
2dLt Allan M. Johnson, 2dLt Matthew H. Kennedy, 2dLt harles H. Kunz,
2dLt Dean S. Hartley, Jr., MG William R. Fuller. Front row: 2dLt Robert
M. D'Arcy, Capt Stanley S. Nicolay, Maj John F Dobbin, Maj Robert E.
Galer, Maj Kirk Armistead, Capt Dale D. Irwin, 2dLt Howard L. Walter,
2dLt Gordon E. Thompson. All in this picture are pilots except MG
Fuller, who was the Engineering Officer. Lt Thompson was reported
missing in action on 31 August 1942. Photo courtesy of BGen Robert E.
Minutes later, the Zero Captain Smith shot became
VMF-223's first kill when it crashed into the water just off Savo
Island. Smith's plane had some bullet holes but was flying alright. Two
F4Fs joined on him. They looked back and it appeared that the Zeros were
in a dogfight near Savo. The Marines thought they were ganging up on
Sergeant Lindley so they went back to help him, but found that there was
no F4F, just five Zeros acting like they were fighting.
The three Marines then got into another dogfight and
the Zeros shot them up some more. Lindley and Kendrick got back to
Henderson and made dead-stick landings. Lindley was burned and blinded
by hot oil when his oil tank was shattered and landed wheels up.
Kendrick's oil line was shot away and he crash-landed. His airplane
never flew again. It took eight days before Smith's plane was patched up
enough to fly once again. Repairs on the fourth plane required 10 days.
Only 15 of the 19 F4Fs were flyable after their first day of action from
Marion Carl, now assigned to VMF-223, shot down three
Japanese aircraft on 24 August to become the Marine Corps' first ace.
Carl added two more kills on the 26th. The young fighter pilot found
himself in competition with his squadron commander, as John Smith also
began accumulating kills with regularity.
Henry T. Elrod, a Wildcat pilot with VMF-211, earned what is
chronologically the first Marine Corps but not the first actually
awarded Medal of Honor for World War II. His exploits during the
defense of Wake Island were not known until after the war. After his
squadron's aircraft were all destroyed, Capt Elrod fought on the ground
and was finally killed by a Japanese rifleman. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
Three personalities of the Cactus Air Force pose after
receiving the Navy Cross from Adm Nimitz on 30 September 1942. From
left: Maj John L. Smith, Maj Robert E. Galer, and Capt Marion E.
Carl. Photo courtesy or Capt Stanley S. Nicolay
'CUB One' at Guadalcanal
On 8 August 1942, U.S. Marines captured a nearly
completed enemy airstrip on Guadalcanal, which would prove critical to
the success of the island campaign. It was essential that the airstrip
become operational as quickly as possible, not only to contest enemy
aircraft in the skies over Guadalcanal, but also to ensure that badly
needed supplies could be flown in and wounded Marines flown out. As it
turned out, Henderson Field also proved to be a safe haven for Navy
planes whose carriers had been sunk or badly damaged.
A Marine fighter squadron (VMF-223) and a Marine dive
bomber squadron (VMSB-232) were expected to arrive on Guadalcanal around
16 August. Unfortunately, Marine aviation ground crews scheduled to
accompany the two squadrons to Guadalcanal were still in Hawaii, and
would not arrive on the island for nearly two weeks. Aircraft ground
crews were urgently needed to service the two Marine squadrons upon
The nearest aircraft ground crews to Guadalcanal were
not Marines, but 450 Navy personnel of a unit known as CUB One, an
advanced base unit consisting of the personnel and material necessary
for the establishment of a medium-sized advanced fuel and supply base.
CUB One had only recently arrived at Espiritu Santo in the New
On 13 August, Admiral John S. McCain ordered Marine
Major Charles H. "Fog" Hayes, executive officer of Marine Observation
Squadron 251, to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 men of CUB One to
assist Marine engineers in completing the airfield (recently named
Henderson Field in honor of a Marine pilot killed in the Battle of
Midway), and to serve as ground crews for the Marine fighters and dive
bombers scheduled to arrive within a few days. Navy Ensign George W.
Polk was in command of the 120-man unit, and was briefed by Major Hayes
concerning the unit's critical mission. (After the war, Polk became a
noted newsman for the Columbia Broadcasting System, and was murdered by
terrorists during the Greek Civil War. A prestigious journalism award
was established and named in his honor).
Utilizing four destroyer transports of World War I
vintage, the 120-man contingent from CUB One departed Espiritu Santo on
the evening of 13 August. The total supply carried northward by the four
transports included 400 drums of aviation gasoline, 32 drums of
lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounders), belted ammunition, a variety
of tools, and critically needed spare parts.
The echelon arrived at Guadalcanal on the evening of
15 August, unloaded its passengers and supplies, and began assisting
Marine engineers the following morning on increasing the length of
Henderson Field. In spite of daily raids by Japanese aircraft, the
arduous work continued, and on 19 August, the airstrip was completed.
CUB One personnel also installed and manned an air-raid warning system
in the famous "Pagoda," the Japanese-built control tower.
Allied air operations in the Solomons were controlled
from the "Pagoda," built by the Japanese and rehabilitated by the men of
CUB One. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 51812
On 20 August, 19 planes of VMF-223 and 12 dive
bombers of VMSB-232 were launched from the escort carrier Long
Island and arrived safely at Henderson Field. The Marine pilots were
quickly put into action over the skies of Guadalcanal in combat
operations against enemy aircraft.
The men of CUB One performed heroics in servicing the
newly arrived Marine fighters and bombers. Few tools existed or had yet
arrived to perform many of the aircraft servicing jobs to which CUB One
was assigned. It was necessary to fuel the Marine aircraft from
55-gallon drums of gasoline. As there were no fuel pumps on the island,
the drums had to be man-handled and tipped into the wing tanks of the
SBDs and the fuselage tanks of the F4F fighters. To do this, CUB One
personnel stood precariously on the slippery wings of the aircraft and
sloshed the gasoline from the heavy drums into the aircraft's gas tanks.
The men used a make-shift funnel made from palm-log lumber.
Bomb carts or hoists were also at a premium during
the early days of the Guadalcanal campaign, so aircraft bombs had to be
raised by hand to the SBD drop brackets, as the exhausted, straining men
wallowed in the mud beneath the airplanes.
No automatic belting machines were available at this
time as well, so that the .50-caliber ammunition for the four guns on
each fighter had to be hand-belted one round at a time by the men of CUB
One. The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same
The dedicated personnel of CUB One performed these
feats for 12 days before Marine squadron ground crews arrived with the
proper equipment to service the aircraft. The crucial support provided
by CUB One was instrumental to the success of the "Cactus Air Force" on
Like their Marine counterparts, the personnel of CUB
One suffered from malaria, dengue fever, sleepless nights, and the
ever-present shortage of food, clothing, and supplies. They would remain
on Guadalcanal, performing their duties in an exemplary manner, until
relieved on 5 February 1943. CUB One richly earned the Presidential Unit
Citation awarded to the unit for its gallant participation in the
Arvil L. Jones with Robert V. Aquilina