Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Guadalcanal: The Beginning of the Long Road Back
Combat in October
A New Crew at Cactus
The Battle for Guadalcanal
Cactus Victory
Post-Guadalcanal Operations
The Marine Corsair Aces of Bougainville and the Central Pacific
The First Corsair Ace
The One and Only 'Pappy'
Other Marine Aces
Marine Corps Aviators Who Received the Medial of Honor
Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger
Special Subjects
'CUB One' at Guadalcanal
The Aircraft in the Conflict
Main Types of Fighters
Japanese Pilots in the Solomons Air War
Researching the Aces' Scores

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 their escorts.

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.

Bell P-39 Airacobra
A 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 Collection

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 "Bulldogs."
Maj John L. Smith
Maj 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 farther back.

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 system, nothing.

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 he could.

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:

LtCol Bauer and ground crewmen
A 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 PNT

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 each other!

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 more.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division