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
The 30th was a busy day for the Marine fighters on
Guadalcanal. The previous day's action saw eight Japanese aircraft shot
down. However, by now, six of VMF-223's original complement of 19
Wildcats had also been destroyed or put out of action. The combat had
been fast and furious since Smith and his squadron had arrived only nine
days before. His young pilots were learning, but at a price.
One of the squadrons that shared Henderson Field with
the Marines was the 67th Fighter Squadron, a somewhat orphaned group of
Army Air Corps pilots, who had arrived on 22 August, led by Captain Dale
Brannon, and their P-400 Airacobras, an export version of the Bell P-39.
Despite its racy looks, the Airacobra found it difficult to get above
15,000 feet, where much of the aerial combat was taking place.
The 67th had had a miserable time of it so far
because of their plane's poor performance, and morale was low. The
pilots were beginning to question their value to the overall effort, and
their commander, desperate for any measure of success to share with his
men, asked Captain Smith if he and his squadron could accompany the
Marines on their next scramble. Smith agreed and on 30 August, the
Marine and Army fighters eight F4Fs and seven P-400s
launched for a lengthy combat air patrol.
The fighters rendezvoused north of Henderson,
maintaining 15,000 feet because of the P-400s' lack of oxygen.
Coastwatchers had identified a large formation of Japanese bombers
heading toward Henderson but had lost sight of their quarry in the
rapidly building wall of thunderclouds approaching the island. The
defenders orbited for 40 minutes, watching for the enemy bombers and
Suddenly, Captain Smith saw the seven Army fighters
dive toward the water, in hot pursuit of Zeros that had emerged from the
clouds. The highly maneuverable Zeros quickly turned the tables on the
P-400s, however. As the Japanese fighters concentrated on the hapless
Bells, the Marine Wildcats lined up behind the Zeros and quickly shot
down four of the dark green Mitsubishis. The effect of the F4Fs' heavy
machine guns was devastating.
Making a second run, Captain Smith found himself
going head-to-head with a Zero, its pilot just as determined as his
Marine opponent. Smith's guns finally blew the Zero up just before a
collision or before one of the two fighter pilots would have had to turn
away. By the end of the engagement, John Smith had shot down two more
Zeros for a total of four kills. With nine kills, Smith was the leading
Marine Corps ace at the time. Fourteen Japanese fighters the
bombers they were escorting had turned back had been shot down by
the Marine and Army pilots, although four of the P-400s were also
destroyed. Two of the pilots returned to Guadalcanal; two did not.
profile of Bell P-39 Airacobra by Larry Lapadura. "Short Stroke"
operated from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal from late 1942 to early
1943. The aircraft's deceptively streamlined shape belied a mediocre
performance, especially above 15,000 feet. However, the aircraft was
well armed and used with success as a ground strafer. Author's
The Marine fighter contingent at Guadalcanal was now
down to five operational aircraft; it needed rein forcement immediately.
Help was on the way, however, for VMF-224 arrived in the afternoon of
the 30th, after John Smith and his tired, but elated squadron returned
from their frantic encounter with the Japanese fighter force. For their
first few missions, VMF-224's pilots accompanied the now-veteran Rainbow
Squadron pilots of VMF223.*
* When it was first established
on 1 May 1942, VMF-223 was called the "Rainbow" Squadron. In May 1943,
it changed its nickname to the more Marine-like
John L. Smith poses in a Wildcat after returning to the States. A tough,
capable combat leader, Smith received the Medal of Honor for his service
at Guadalcanal. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 11984
Captain Galer's VMF-224 had no time to acclimate to
its new base. (The day after its arrival, it was in action.) The
squadron landed on the 30th in the midst of an alert, and was quickly
directed to its parking areas on the field.
The next two weeks saw several of the Marine aviators
bail out of their Wildcats after tangling with the enemy Zeros. On 31
August, First Lieutenant Stanley S. Nicolay of VMF-224 was on a flight
with Second Lieutenant Richard R. Amerine, Second Lieutenant Charles E.
Bryans, and Captain John F. Dobbin, the squadron executive officer. It
was VMF-224's first combat mission since its arrival the day before. As
the Marines struggled past 18,000 feet on their way up to 20,000,
Lieutenant Nicolay noticed two of the wingmen lagging farther and
He called Amerine and Bryans but got no response. He
then called Dobbin and said he wanted to drop back to check on the
wayward Wildcats. "It's too late to break up the formation," Dobbin
wisely said. "There's nothing we can do." Nicolay closed up on Dobbin
and they continued on.
The two young aviators had problems with their
primitive oxygen systems and lacking sufficient oxygen, they possibly
had even passed out in the thin air. Nicolay recalled,
We never saw Bryans again. It was so senseless. I
remember thinking that after all their training and effort, neither one
of them ever fired a shot in anger. They had no chance. The oxygen
system was just a tiny, white triangular mask that fitted over the nose
and mouth. You turned on the bottle, and that was it. No pressure
Apparently, the two Marine pilots had been jumped by
roving Zeros. Bryans was thought to be killed almost immediately, while
Amerine was able to bail out. He parachuted to the relative safety of
the jungle, and as he attempted to return to Henderson Field, he
encountered several Japanese patrols on the way back, killing four enemy
soldiers before returning to the Marine lines.
1stLt Stanley S. Nicolay beside a Wildcat, probably just
before deploying to the Pacific in 1942. He eventually shot down three
Betty bombers at Guadalcanal. Note the narrow track of the Wildcat's
main landing gear. Photo courtesy of Capt Stanley S. Nicolay
Marion Carl, who had 11 kills, had his own
escape-and-evasion experience after he and his wingman, Lieutenant
Clayton M. Canfield, were shot down on 9 September. Carl bailed out of
his burning Wildcat and landed in the water where a friendly native
scooped him up and hid him from the roving Japanese patrols. (Canfield
had been quickly rescued by an American destroyer.)
The native took the ace to a native doctor who spoke
English. The doctor gave Carl a small boat with an old motor which
needed some work before it functioned properly With the Japanese army
all around, it was important that the American pilot get out as soon as
Finally, he and the doctor arrived offshore of Marine
positions on Guadalcanal. Dennis Byrd recalled Carl's return on the
afternoon of 14 September:
A small motor launch operated by a very black native
with a huge head of frizzled hair pulled up to the Navy jetty at Kukum.
The tall white man tending the boat's wheezing engine was VMF-223's
Captain Marion Carl. He had been listed as missing in action since
September 9th and was presumed dead... Carl reported that on the day he
disappeared, he'd shot down two more Jap bombers. Captain Carl's score
was now 12 and Major Smith's, 14.
Now-Major Galer scored his squadron's first kills
when he shot down two Zeros during a noontime raid of 26 bombers and
eight Zero escorts over Henderson on 5 September. VMF-224 went up to
intercept them, and the squadron commander knocked down a bomber and a
fighter, after which he was shot down by a Zero that tacked onto him
from behind and riddled his Wildcat. Recalling the action in a wartime
press release, Galer said:
rare photo of an exuberant LtCol Bauer as he demonstrates his technique
to two ground crewmen. Intensely competitive, and known as "the Coach,"
Bauer was one of several Marine Corps aviators who received the Medal of
Honor, albeit posthumously, at Guadalcanal. National Archives photo 208-PU-14X-1
l knew I'd be forced to land, but that Zero getting
me dead to rights made me sore. I headed into a cloud, and instead of
coming out below it as he expected, I came out on top and let him have
it. . . .
Then we both fell, but he was in flames and done for.
I made a forced landing in a field, and before my wheels could stop
rolling, Major Rivers J. Morrell and Lieutenant Pond of VMF-223, both
forced their ships on the same deck all within three minutes of
Two days after his forced landing, Major Galer had to
ditch his aircraft once more after another round with the Japanese. His
flight was returning from a mission when it ran into a group of enemy
bombers. He related that:
One of them fell to my guns, and pulling out of the
dive, I took after a Zero. But I didn't pull around fast enough, and his
guns knocked out my engine, setting it on fire. We were at about 5,000
feet, but l feared the swirling mass of Japs more than the fire . . . so
I laid over on my back and dove headlong for some clouds below me.
Coming through the clouds, I didn't see any more Japs, and leveled off
at 2,000 feet. I changed my angle of flight and grade of descent so I'd
land as near as possible to shore. I set down in the drink some 200 or
300 yards from shore and swam in, unhurt.*
*This was not the first time Galer had a watery end
to a flight. As a first lieutenant with VMF-2 in 1940, he had to ride
his Grumman F3F biplane fighter in while approaching the carrier
Saratoga (CV3). The Grumman sank and stayed on the bottom off San
Diego for 40 years. It was discovered by a Navy exploration team and
raised, somewhat the worse for wear. Retired Brigadier General Robert
Galer was at the dock when his old mount found dry land once