TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve
The Battle for Guadalcanal
On the night of 12-13 November, American and Japanese
naval forces fought a classic naval battle which has been called the
First Battle of Guadalcanal. It was a tactical defeat for the Americans
who lost two rear admirals killed in action on the bridges of their
The next day, 14 November, the Second Battle of
Guadalcanal pitted aircraft from the carrier Enterprise and
Henderson Field against a large enemy force trying to run the Slot, the
body of water running down the Solomons chain between Guadalcanal and
New Georgia. By midnight, another naval engagement was underway. This
battle turned out differently for the Japanese, who lost several ships,
including 10 transports carrying more than 4,000 troops and their
The Navy and Marines from Enterprise and
Henderson hammered the enemy ships, while the Americans on the island,
in turn, were harassed day and night by well-entrenched enemy artillery
positions still on Guadalcanal and the huge guns of the Japanese
battleships and cruisers offshore.
During these furious engagements, Lieutenant Colonel
Bauer had dutifully stayed on the ground, organizing Cactus air strikes
and ordering other people into the air. Finally, on the afternoon of 14
November, Colonel Bauer scheduled himself to lead seven F4Fs from
VMF-121 as escorts for a strike by SBDs and TBFs against the Japanese
Together with Captain Foss and Second Lieutenant
Thomas W. "Coot" Furlow, Bauer strafed one of the transports before
turning back for Henderson. Two Zeros sneaked up on the Marine fighters,
but Bauer turned to meet the threat, shooting down one of the Japanese
attackers. The second Zero dragged Foss and Furlow over a Japanese
destroyer which did its best to take out the Wildcats. By the time they
had shaken the Zero and returned to the point where they last saw the
Coach, they found a large oil slick with Colonel Bauer in the middle,
wearing his yellow Mae West, waving furiously at his squadron mates.
Foss quickly flew back to Henderson and jumped into a
Grumman Duck, a large amphibian used as a hack transport and rescue
vehicle. Precious time was lost as the Duck had to hold for a squadron
of Army B-26 bombers landing after a flight from New Caledonia; they
were nearly out of gas. Finally, Foss and the Duck's pilot, Lieutenant
Joseph N. Renner, roared off in the last light of the day. By the time
they arrived over Bauer's last position, it was dark and the Coach was
nowhere to be seen.
The next morning a desperate search found nothing of
Lieutenant Colonel Bauer. He was never found and was presumed to have
drowned or have been attacked by the sharks which were a constant threat
to all aviators forced to parachute into the waters around Guadalcanal
during the campaign.
Bauer's official score of 11 Japanese aircraft
destroyed (revised lists credit him with 10) did not begin to tell the
impact the loss the tough veteran had on the young Marine and Navy crews
at Henderson. He was decorated with a Medal of Honor posthumously for
his flight on 16 October, when he shot down four Japanese Val
dive-bombers, but the high award could also be considered as having been
given in recognition of his leadership of his own squadron, VMF-212, and
later, as the commander of the fighters of the Cactus Air Force.
Foss saves a fellow pilot by shooting down an attacking Zero during an
engagement on 23 October 1942. Painting by William S. Philllps, courtesy of
The Greenwich Workshop
The loss of the Coach was a hard blow. Another loss,
albeit temporary, was that of Joe Foss who became severely ill with
malaria. (Many of the Cactus Air Force aviators, like the ground troops,
battled one tropical malady or another during their combat tours.) Foss
flew out to New Caledonia on 19 November with a temperature of 104
degrees. He spent the next month on sick leave, also losing 37 pounds.
While in Australia, he met some of the Australian pilots who had flown
against Nazi pilots in the Desert War in North Africa. In one of his
conversations with them, he told the Aussies, "We have a saying up at
Guadalcanal, if you're alone and you meet a Zero, run like hell because
you're outnumbered." In the coming months, they would find out he knew
was he was talking about.
Foss returned to Guadalcanal on 31 December 1942, and
remained on combat status until 17 February 1943, when he was ordered
back to the U.S. By this time, besides enduring several return bouts
with malaria, he had shot down another six Japanese aircraft for a final
total of 26 aircraft and no balloons, thus becoming the first American
pilot to equal the score of Captain Edward Rickenbacker, the top U.S.
ace in World War I. In that war, tethered balloons shot down counted as
aircraft splashed. Of the 26 planes Rickenbacker was given credit for,
four were balloons.
Joe Foss was one of the Cactus Marines who was
awarded the Medal of Honor for his cumulative work during their intense
campaign. Summoned to the White House on 18 May 1943, he was decorated
by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After his action-packed tour at
Guadalcanal, Captain Foss went on the requisite War Bond tour. Promoted
to major, he took command of a new fighter squadron, VMF-115, equipped
with F4U-1 Corsairs.
Originally nicknamed "Joe's Jokers, in deference to
their famous skipper, VMF-115 flew a short combat tour from Bougainville
during May when there was little or no enemy air activity from and above
Rabaul. Major Foss did not add to his score.