TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve
The First Corsair Ace
Because the Navy decided that the F6F Wildcat was a
better carrier fighter than the F4U Vought Corsair, the Marines got a
chance to field the first operational squadron to fly the plane. Thus,
Major William Gise led the 24 F4U-1s of VMF-124 onto Henderson Field on
12 February 1943.
Enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1933, 1stLt Kenneth A. Walsh eventually
went through flight training as a private, gaining his wings in 1937. By
1943, Walsh was in aerial combat over the Solomons and be came the first
Corsair-mounted ace. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 60940
As the Allied offensive across the Pacific gathered
momentum, the fighting above the Solomons and the surrounding islands
continued as the Japanese constantly harassed the advancing Allied
troops. The Corsair's first engagements were tentative. The pilots of
the first squadron, VMF-124. had only an average of 25 hours each in the
plane when they landed at Guadalcanal. The very next day, they were off
to Bougainvile as escorts for Army B-17s and Navy PB4Y Liberators. It
was a lot to ask, but they did it, taking some losses of both bombers
and escorts. While it was a rough start, the Marines soon settled down
and began to exploit the great performance of this new machine, soon to
become known to the Japanese as "Whistling Death," and to the Corsair
pilots as the "Bent Wing Widow Maker."
After the first few missions, the new experience with
the Corsair's capabilities began to really take hold. First Lieutenant
Kenneth A. Walsh, a former enlisted pilot (he received his wings of gold
as a private), shot down three enemy aircraft on 1 April. Six
weeks later, after several patrols, Walsh dropped three more Zeros on 13
May 1943, becoming the first Corsair ace. By 15 August, Walsh had 10
victories to his credit.
On 30 August, he was scheduled to fly escort for Army
B-24s on a strike against the Japanese airfield at Kahili, Bougainville.
Walsh's four-plane section launched before noontime to make the flight
to a forward base on Banika in the Russell Islands. After refueling and
grabbing some lunch, the four Marine pilots took off again to rendezvous
with the bombers. As the escorts more F4Us and Army P-38s
joined up with the bombers, Walsh's engine acted up, forcing him to make
an emergency landing at Munda.
1stLt Ken Walsh of VMF-124 connects his radio lead to
his flight helmet before a mission in 1943. He was the first F4U pilot
to be decorated with the Medal of Honor, for a mission on 30 August
1943, during which he shot down four Japanese Zeros before ditching his
borrowed Corsair. National Archives photo 80-G-54291
A friend, Major James L. Neefus, was in charge of the
Munda airfield, and he let Walsh choose an other fighter from Corsairs
that were parked on Munda's airstrip. Walsh took off in his borrowed
fighter and headed toward Kahili to try to find and rejoin with his
division. As he finally approached the enemy base, he saw the B-24s in
their bomb runs, beset by swarms of angry Zeros. Alone, at least for the
moment, Walsh piled into the enemy interceptors which had already begun
to work on the Army bombers.
As Walsh fought off several attacks by some 50 Zeros,
thereby disrupting to a degree their attack on the bombers, he wondered
where all the other American fighters might be. Finally, several other
Corsairs appeared to relieve the hard-pressed ace. As other aircraft
took the burden from Walsh, he eased his damaged fighter east to take
stock of his situation. He was able to shoot down two Zeros, but the
enemy interceptors were nearly over whelming. The B-24s were struggling
to turn for home as more Zeros took off from Kahili.
Lieutenant Walsh managed to down two more Zeros
before he had to disengage his badly damaged Corsair. Pursued by the
Japanese, who pumped cannon and machine gun fire into his plane, Walsh
knew he would not return this Corsair to Major Neefus at Munda. Several
Corsairs and a lone P-40 arrived to scatter the Zeros which were using
Walsh for target practice. He ditched his battered fighter off Vella
Lavella and was picked up by the Seabees who borrowed a boat after
watching the Marine Corsair splash into the sea. For his spirited
single-handed defense of the B-24s over Bougainville. Lieutenant Walsh
became the first Corsair pilot to receive the Medal of Honor. The four
Zeros he shot down during this incredible mission ran his score to
VMF-124 F4U-1, No.13, was flown by 1stLt Ken Walsh during his first
combat tour in which he became the first Corsair-mounted ace.
Profile by Larry
Lapadura, courtesy of the artist
Ken Walsh shot down one more aircraft, another Zero,
off Okinawa on 22 June 1945, the day the island was secured. At the
time, Walsh was the operations officer for VMF 222, shorebased on the
newly secured island.
A series of assaults during the spring and summer of
1943 netted the Allies several important islands up the Solomons chain.
An amphibious assault of Bougainville at Empress Augusta Bay on 1
November 1943, caught the Japanese defenders off guard. In spite of
Japanese reaction and reinforcement, a secure perimeter was quickly
established, and within 40 days, the first of three airfields was in
operation with two more to follow by the new year. Aircraft from these
strips flew fighter sweeps first, later to be followed by daily escorted
SBD and TBF strikes. With the establishment of this air strength at
Bougainville, the rest of the island was effectively bypassed, and the
fate of Rabaul sealed.
Gregory "Pappy" Boyington became the best known Marine ace. A member of
the Flying Tigers in China before World War II, he later commanded
VMF-122 before taking over VMF-214. By early January 1944, he was the
Corps' leading scorer. Here, the colorful Boyington, center, relaxes
with some of his pilots. Author's Collection
Marine aircraft began flying from their base at
Torokina Point at Empress Augusta Bay, the site for the initial landing
on Bougainville's midwestern coast. Navy Seabees then quickly hacked out
two more airstrips from the jungle Piva North and Piva South.
Piva Village was a settlement on the Piva River, east of the airfield
The official Marine Corps history noted that
"whenever there was no combat air patrol over the beachhead, the
Japanese were quite apt to drop shells into the airfield area. The
Seabees and Marine engineers moved to the end of the field which was not
being hit and continued to work."
Comparative Table for Main Types of Fighters
|28'9"||38'0"||Pratt & Whitney
|320/19,400||910/1,250||4x (later 6)|
|33'4"||41'0"||Pratt & Whitney
|308/13,100||745 max||2x7.7mm or|
1Includes all variants of the F4U-1, i.e., the -1, -1A,
-1C (armed with 4x20mm cannon), and -1D, as well as those built by
Goodyear as the FG-1A/D, and by Brewster as the F3A-1D.
2The amount reclaimed by the USAAF from the original RAF
order of 675. Approximately 100 P-400 and 90 P-39Ds Served with the
USAAF in the Pacific. Others served with the Soviet Air Force, and the
USAAF in the Middle East and the Mediterranean theater.
3Production numbers for many Japanese aircraft are
difficult to pin down. The best estimate places A6M2 production at over