TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve
A New Crew at Cactus
Although VMF-223 had left, Guadalcanal still had
several top scoring aces left, among them Captain Joe Foss of VMF-121
and Lieutenant Colonel Harold Bauer of VMF-212. Throughout October 1942,
Foss and Bauer were kept busy by constant Japanese raids, desperately
trying to dislodge the determined Marines from the island.
Lieutenant Colonel Bauer had led his VMF-212 up from
Espiritu Santo on the afternoon of 16 October, when he finally had his
own squadron at Henderson. With empty gas tanks, the 18 Wildcats were
running on fumes as they entered the landing pattern in time to see a
U.S. transport under attack from Japanese dive-bombers. Without
hesitating, Bauer broke from the pattern and charged into the Vals,
shooting down four of them. It was an incredible way to advertise the
arrival of his squadron.
Joe Foss took off on the afternoon of 23 October to
intercept an incoming force of Betty bombers, escorted by Zeros. Five of
the escorting fighters dove toward Foss and his flight, followed by 20
more Zeros. Diving to gain speed, the VMF-121 executive officer saw a
Wildcat pursued by a Zero. He fired at the Japanese fighter, shredding
it with his six .50-caliber machine guns.
Without losing speed, Foss racked his aircraft into a
loop behind an other Zero. He destroyed this second Mitsubishi while
both fighters hung inverted over Guadalcanal. As he came out of the
loop, Foss hit a third Zero. A fourth kill finished off a highly
On 25 October, Foss took off again against a Japanese
raid, and this time, he shot down two enemy aircraft. Later the same
day, Foss gunned down three more Zeros for a total of five in one day,
and an overall score of 16 kills.
Marine Corps Aviators Who Received the Medal of Honor
in World War II
Of the 81 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines for service
during World War II, 11 Marine Corps aviators received America's highest
military award. Except for two posthumous awards, the medals all went to
aces who served in the Solomons and Bougainville campaigns. The Medal of
Honor was awarded to Captain Henry T. Elrod of VMF-211 and Captain
Richard E. Fleming of VMSB-241. Captain Elrod was killed on Wake in
December 1941. Although his award is chronologically the first Medal of
Honor to be awarded to a Marine during the war, his performance did not
become known until survivors of Wake had been repatriated after the
Captain Fleming was a dive-bomber pilot at Midway in
1942. VMSB-241 flew both the obsolete Vought SB2U Vindicator and the SBD
Dauntless during this pivotal battle. On 5 June 1942, Captain Fleming
was last seen diving on a Japanese ship amidst a wall of flak. HIs
Vindicator struck the cruiser's aft turret.
Two of the remaining nine awards were for specific
actions; the other seven were for periods of continued service or
more than one mission. Seven of these awards were for service in the
Solomons-Guadalcanal Campaign. The awards for specific actions went to
First Lieutenant Jefferson DeBlanc (31 January 1943) and First
Lieutenant James E. Swett (7 April 1943).
Five of these awards were originally posthumous.
However, Major Gregory Boyington made a surprise return from captivity
as a prisoner of war to receive his award in person from President Harry
The Pilots and Their Aircraft
*Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, VMF-212. For service from May to
November 1942. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat.
Major Gregory Boyington, VMF-214. For service from September 1943 to
January 1944 in the Central Solomons. Vought F4U-1 /F4U-1A Corsair.
First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, VMF-112. For action on 31 January
1943. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat.
*Captain Henry T. Elrod, VMF-211. For action on Wake Island 8-23
December 1941. Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat.
*Captain Richard E. Fleming, VMSB-241. For action at the Battle of
Midway, 4-5 June 1942. Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator.
Captain Joseph J. Foss, VMF-121. For service in the Guadalcanal
Campaign, October 1942-January 1943. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat.
Major Robert E. Galer, VMF-224. For service in the Guadalcanal Campaign,
August-September 1942. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat.
*First Lieutenant Robert M. Hanson, VMF-215. For action in the Central
Solomons, November 1943 and January 1944. Vought F4U-1 Corsair.
Major John L. Smith, VMF-223. For service in the Guadalcanal Campaign,
August-September 1942. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat.
First Lieutenant James E. Swett, VMF-221. For action on 7 April 1943
over Guadalcanal. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat.
First Lieutenant Kenneth A. Walsh, VMF-124. For action on 15 and 30
August 1943. Vought F4U-1 Corsair.
* indicates a posthumous award
Lieutenant Colonel Bauer was adding to his score,
too. A veteran aviator, Colonel Bauer was a respected flight leader. He
frequently gave pep talks to his younger pilots, earning the
affectionate nickname of "Coach." Bauer had taken over as commander of
fighters on Guadalcanal on 23 October.
Before the big mission on 23 October, the Coach had
told his pilots, "When you see Zeros, dogfight 'em!" His instructions
went against the warnings that most of American fighter pilots had been
given about the lithe little Japanese fighter. Joe Foss' success on this
day seemed to vindicate Bauer, however. Twenty Zeros and two Bettys,
including the four Zeros claimed by Foss, went down in front of Marine
While the Marines on Guadalcanal fought for their lives,
their Navy compatriots far offshore also challenged the Japanese. At the
Battle of Santa Cruz, October 1942, Japanese bombers hit the American
ships, damaging the vital carrier Enterprise as well as attacking
squadrons of inexperienced Navy aircrews. This A6M2 Model 21 Zero
launches from the carrier Sholalu during Santa Cruz while deck
crewmen cheer on the pilot, Lt Hideki Shingo. Author's Collection
Up to this time the Zero was considered the best
fighter in the Pacific. This belief stemmed from the fact that the Zero
had spectacular characteristics of performance in both maneuverability,
rate of climb, and radius of action, all first noted at the Battles of
the Coral Sea and Midway. And it was because of its performances in
these actions that it achieved the seeming invincibility that it did. At
the same time, the Zero was highly flammable because it lacked armor
plate in any form in its design and also because it had no self-sealing
fuel tanks, such as existed in U.S. aircraft. Initially in the war, in
the hands of a good pilot, the Zero could usually take care of itself
against its heavier and tougher American opponents, but early in the air
battles over Guadalcanal, its days of supremacy became numbered. By the
end of the war in the Pacific, the kill ratio of U.S. planes over
Japanese aircraft went from approximately 2.5:1 to better than 10:1.
What made the difference as far as Lieutenant Colonel
Bauer was concerned was his feeling that, in the 10 months of intense
combat after Pearl Harbor, including their disastrous and failed
adventure at Midway, the Japanese had lost many of their most
experienced pilots, and their replacements were neither so good nor
experienced. Many of the major aces of the Zero squadrons the
ones who had accumulated many combat hours over China had,
indeed, been lost or been rotated out of the combat zone. Whatever the
situation, most of the Marine pilots in this early part of the war in
the South Pacific would still admit that the Japanese remained a force
to be reckoned with.
The Japanese endeavored to reassert their dominance
on 25 October. In a last-ditch effort to remove American carriers from
the South Pacific, a fleet including three aircraft carriers sortied to
find the U.S. carriers Enterprise and Hornet, all that
remained at the moment of the meager U.S. carrier strength in the
The Japanese fleet was discovered during an intensive
search by PBY flying boats, and the battle was joined early in the
morning of 26 October. What became known as the Battle of Santa Cruz
occurred some 300 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. Indeed, most of the
Marine and Navy flight crews attempting to blunt remaining enemy air
raids still plaguing the positions of the embattled ground forces on
Guadalcanal had no idea that another desperate fight was being waged
that would have a distinct impact on their situation back at
Many American Navy flight crews received their
baptism of fire during Santa Cruz. Hornet was hit by Japanese
dive-bombers and eventually abandoned one of the few times that a
still-floating American ship had been left to the enemy, even though she
was burning from stem to stern. (The carrier was only a year old.)
Enterprise was hit by Val dive-bombers, and the aircraft of her
Air Group 10 were ultimately forced to land on Guadalcanal. The
displaced Navy crews remained at Henderson until 10 November, while
their ship underwent repairs at Noumea, New Caledonia.
While blame and recriminations went the rounds of the
Navy's Pacific commands for it seemed that Santa Cruz was a
debacle, a strategic and tactical defeat for the hard-pressed carrier
force the effects of the battle would become clear soon.
Sixty-nine Japanese aircraft had been shot down by Navy F4Fs and
antiaircraft fire. An additional 23 were forced to ditch because of
crippling battle damage.
Like Midway, Santa Cruz deprived the Japanese of many
of their vital aircraft and their experienced flight crews and
flight commanders. Thus, as the frantic month of October gave way to
November, and although they did not know it at the time, the Cactus Air
Force crews had been given a respite, and ultimately, the key to victory
over the island.
Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger, USMC
General Geiger, commander of the 1st Marine Aircraft
Wing, arrived on Guadalcanal on 3 September 1942 to assume command of
air operations emanating from Henderson Field. He was 57 years old, and
he had been a Marine for 35 of those years, commanded a squadron in
France in World War I, served a number of tours fighting the bandits in
Central America, and had served in the Philippines and China. He was
designated a naval aviator in June 1917, thus becoming the fifth flyer m
the Marine Corps and the 49th in the naval service. In the course of his
career, he had a number of assignments to staff and command billets as
well as tours at senior military courses such as the ones at the Army
Command and Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, the Army War College at
Carlisle, and the Navy War College at Newport. He also was both a
student and instructor at various times at the Marine Corps Schools,
Quantico, Virginia. Among other reasons, it was because of his sound
training in strategy and tactics at these schools and his long
experience as a Marine that he was so well equipped to assume command of
I Marine Amphibious Corps (later III Amphibious Corps) for the
Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu, and Okinawa operations.
When Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.,
USA, commander of the Tenth Army on Okinawa was killed, and based on
General Buckner's stated decision before the operation, General Geiger
took over command and became the first Marine ever to accede to command
of as large a unit as an army. He was then 60, an age when many men in
civilian life looked forward to retirement.
But it was at Guadalcanal, where his knowledge of
Marine planes and pilots was so important in defeating the myth of
Japanese invincibility in the air, that he first made his mark in the
Pacific War. A short, husky, tanned, and white-haired Marine, whose deep
blue eyes were piercing and whose reputation had preceded him, compelled
instant attention, recognition, and dedication on the part of his junior
pilots, many of whom had but a few hours of experience in the planes
they were flying. As told in this pamphlet, out of meager beginnings
grew the reputation and success in combat of the aces in the
Benis M. Frank
Meanwhile, under the command of Admiral Isoroku
Yamamoto, the Japanese decided to make one more try to land troops and
material on Guadalcanal and to regain the island and its airstrips. The
Americans were also bringing new squadrons and men in to fortify Cactus
Base and Henderson Field. MAG-11 arrived on 1 November, bringing the
SBDs of VMSB-132 and the F4Fs of VMF-112. Newly promoted Brigadier
General Louis Woods arrived on 7 November to relieve Brigadier General
Roy S. Geiger as commander of the Cactus Air Force. Both men were
pioneer Marine aviators, and Geiger had led his squadrons through some
of the most intense combat to be seen during the war. But, almost
inevitably, the strain was beginning to show on the tough, 57-year-old
Geiger. He had once taken off in an SBD in full view of his troops and
dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on a Japanese position, showing his troops
that a former squadron commander in France in World War I could still do
As new planes and crews arrived at Henderson and the
frustrated Japanese planned their final attacks, the Cactus Marines
fought on. On 7 November, a sighting of a force of Japanese ships near
Florida Island scrambled a strike group of SBDs and their F4F escorts.
Captain Joe Foss led eight VMF-121 Wildcats, each with 250-pound bombs
beneath its wings. The VMSB-132 Dauntlesses carried 500-pounders in
their centerline-mounted bomb racks.
The heavily laden aircraft took some 30 minutes to
climb to 12,000 feet as their crews searched for the enemy flotilla. As
he looked ahead and below, Foss spotted six Japanese floatplane Zeros
a modification of the A6M2 model of the land-and carrier-based
Zero crossing from right to left, descending. Alerting his
squadron mates, he dropped his light bombs and headed toward the
unsuspecting enemy fighters.
Using hit-and-run tactics, Capt Joe Foss flames a
Japanese Zero over Henderson Field in October 1942. Painting by Ted Wilbur,
courtesy of the artist
In one slashing pass, Foss' Wildcats shot down five
of the six Zeros, Foss' target literally disintegrating under the weight
of his heavy machine gun fire. One of the other Wildcats shot down the
surviving Zero. All six enemy pilots bailed out of their fighters and
seemed to be out of danger as they floated to ward the water. As the
incredulous Marine pilots watched, however, the six Japanese aviators
unlatched their parachute harnesses and fell to their deaths.
aces walk with another famous aviator. Charles Lindbergh, right, visited
the Pacific combat areas several times to help Army, Navy, and Marine
Corps squadrons get the most from the respective mounts. Here, the
pioneer transatlantic flier visits with now-Maj Joe Foss, left, and
now-Maj Marion Carl, center, in May 1944. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
Foss called for his fighters to regroup in
preparation for a strafing run on the enemy warships below. He spotted a
slow float biplane probably a Mitsubishi type used for
reconnaissance and lined up for what he thought would be an easy
kill. However, the two-seater was surprisingly maneuverable, and its
pilot chopped the throttle, letting his rear gunner get a good shot at
the surprised American fighter.
The gunner's aim was good and Foss' Wildcat suffered
heavy damage before he finally dispatched the audacious little
floatplane. Soon, the VMF-121 executive officer found a third victim,
another floatplane, and shot it down. Regrouping with a portion of his
group, he flew back to Henderson Field with another badly damaged
Wildcat. However, the two cripples were spotted en route by enemy
fighters. The two American fighters tried to get to the protection of
clouds. Foss succeeded, but his wingman was apparently shot down by the
Foss was not out of danger, how ever, as his engine
finally quit, forcing him to glide toward the sea, 3,500 feet below. He
dropped through heavy rain, trying to gauge the best way to put his
aircraft down in the water. He spotted a small village on the coast of a
nearby island and wondered if the natives would turn him over to the
He hit the water with enough force to slam his canopy
shut, momentarily trapping him in the cock pit as the Wildcat began to
sink. In a few seconds which seemed like an eternity, he struggled to
free himself from his seat and the straps of his parachute, and force
the canopy open again. His aircraft was well below the surface and only
after an adrenalin-charged push, was he able to ram the canopy back and
shoot from his plane. He remembered to inflate his Mae West life
preserver, which helped him get to the surface where he lay gasping for
After floating for a long time as darkness fell, Foss
was finally rescued by natives and a missionary priest from the village
he had seen as he dropped toward the water. The rescue came none too
soon as sharks, which frequented the waters near the island, had begun
to appear around the Marine pilot.
A PBY flew up from Henderson the next day to collect
him and he was back in action the day after he returned. On 12 November,
he scored three kills, making him the top American ace of the war, and
the first to reach 20 kills.