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 Aircraft in the Conflict

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were definitely at a disadvantage when America entered World War II in December 1941. Besides other areas, their frontline aircraft were well behind world standards.

The Japanese did not suffer similarly, however, for they were busy building up their arsenal as they sought sources of raw materials they needed and were prepared to go to war to acquire. Besides possessing what was the finest aerial torpedo in the world — the Long Lance — they had the aircraft to deliver it. And they had fighters to protect the bombers. Although the world initially refused to believe how good Japanese aircraft and their pilots were, it wasn't long after the attack on Pearl Harbor that reality seeped in.

The first production model of Grumman's stubby, little Wildcat was the F4F-3, which carried four .50-caliber machine guns in the wings. Its wings did not fold, unlike the -4 which added two more machine guns and folding wings. These F4F-3s of VMF-121 carry prewar exercise markings. Author's Collection

In many respects, the U.S. Army Air Force — it had been the U.S. Army Air Corps until 20 June 1941 — and the Navy and Marine Corps had the same problems in the first two years of the war. The Army's top fighters were the Bell P-39 Airacobra and the Curtiss P-40B/E Tomahawk/Kittyhawk. The Navy and Marine Corps' two frontline fighters were the Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo and the Grumman F4F-3/4 Wildcat during 1942.

Of these single-seaters, only the Army's P-40 and the Navy's F4F achieved any measure of success against the Japanese in 1942. The P-40's main attributes were its diving speed, which let it disengage from a fight, and its ability to absorb punishment and still fly, a confidence builder for its hard-pressed pilots. The Wildcat was also a tough little fighter ("built like Grumman iron" was a popular catch-phrase of the period), and had a devastating battery of four (for the F4F-3) or six .50-caliber machine guns (for the F4F-4) and a fair degree of maneuverability.

Both the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy also had outstanding aircraft. The Army's primary fighter of the early war was the Nakajima K.43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon), a light, little aircraft, with a slim, tapered fuselage and a bubble canopy.

The Navy's fighter came to symbolize the Japanese air effort, even for the Japanese, themselves. The Mitsubishi Type "O" Carrier Fighter (its official designation) was as much a trend-setting design as was Britain's Spitfire or the American Corsair.

VMF-121 F4F-3
The Wildcat was a relatively small aircraft, as were most of the pre war fighters throughout the world. The aircraft's narrow gear track is shown to advantage in this ground view of a VMF-121 F4F-3.

However, as author Norman Franks wrote, the Allied crews found that "the Japanese airmen were...far superior to the crude stereotypes so disparaged by the popular press and cartoonists. And in a Zero they were highly dangerous."

The hallmark of Japanese fighters had always been superb maneuverability. Early biplanes — which had been developed from British and French designs — set the pace. By the mid-1930s, the Army and Navy had two world-class fighters, the Nakajima Ki.27 and the Mitsubishi A5M series, respectively, both low-wing, fixed-gear aircraft. The Ki.27 did have a modern enclosed cockpit, while the A5M's cockpit was open (except for one variant that experimented with a canopy which was soon discarded in service.) A major and fatal disadvantage of most Japanese fighters was their light armament — usually a pair of .30-caliber machine guns — and lack of armor, as well as their great flammability.

When the Type "0" first flew in 1939, most Japanese pilots were enthusiastic about the new fighter. It was fast, had retractable landing gear and an enclosed cock pit, and carried two 20mm cannon besides the two machine guns. Initial operational evaluation in China in 1940 confirmed the aircraft's potential.

By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the A6M2 was the Imperial Navy's standard carrier fighter, and rapidly replaced the older A5Ms still in service. As the A6M2 proved successful in combat, it acquired its wartime nickname, "Zero," although the Japanese rarely referred to it as such. The evocative name came from the custom of designating aircraft in reference to the Japanese calendar. Thus, since 1940 corresponded to the year 2600 in Japan, the fighter was the Type "00" fighter, which was shortened to "0." The western press picked up the designation and the name "Zero" was born.

This A6M3 is taking off from Rabaul in 1943. Author's Collection

A6M3, Model 32
The Zero's incredible maneuverability came at some expense from its top speed. In an effort to increase the speed, the designers clipped the folding wingtips from the carrier-based A6M2 and evolved the land-based A6M3, Model 32. The pilots were not impressed with the speed increase and the production run was short, the A6M3 reverting back to its span as the Model 22. The type was originally called "Hap," after Gen Henry "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Force. Arnold was so angry at the dubious honor that the name was quickly changed to Hamp. This Hamp is shown in the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaign. Author's Collection

The fighter received another name in 1943 which was almost as popular, especially among the American flight crews. A system of first names referred to various enemy aircraft, in much the same way that the postwar NATO system referred to Soviet and Chinese aircraft. The Zero was tagged "Zeke," and the names were used interchangeably by everyone, from flight crews to intelligence officers. (Other examples of the system included "Claude" [A5M], "Betty" [Mitsubishi G4M bomber], and "Oscar" [Ki.43].)

As discussed in the main text, the Navy and Marine Corps Wildcats were sometimes initially hard-pressed to defend their ships and fields against the large forces of Betty bombers and their Zero escorts, which had ranges of 800 miles or more through the use of drop tanks.

The Brewster Buffalo had little to show for its few encounters with the Japanese, which is difficult to understand given the type's early success during the Russo-Finnish War. The F2A-1, a lighter, earlier model of the -3 which served with the Marines, was the standard Finnish fighter plane. In its short combat career in American service, the Brewster failed miserably.

Thus, the only fighter capable of meeting the Japanese on anything approaching equal terms was the F4F, which was fortunate because the Wildcat was really all that was available in those dark days following Pearl Harbor. Retired Brigadier General Robert E. Galer described the Wildcat as "very rugged and very mistreated (at Guadalcanal)." He added:

F2A Buffalo
Brewster's fat little F2A Buffalo is credited with a dismal performance in American and British service, although the Finns racked up a fine score against the Russians. This view of a Marine Brewster shows the aptness of its popular name, which actually came from the British. Its characteristic greenhouse canopy and main wheels tucked snugly into its belly are also well shown. Author's Collection

A6M2-N float plane
The A6M2-N float plane version of the Zero did fairly well, suffering only a small loss in its legendary maneuverability. Top speed was somewhat affected, however, and the aircraft's relatively light armament was a detriment. Photo courtesy of Robert Mikesh

Full throttle, very few replacement parts, muddy landing strips, battle damage, roughly repaired. We loved them. We did not worry about flight characteristics except when senior officers wanted to make them bombers as well as fighters.

The Japanese also operated a unique form of fighter. Other combatants had tried to make seaplanes of existing designs. The U.S. Navy had even hung floats on the Wildcat, which quickly became the "Wildcatfish." The British had done it with the Spitfire. But the resulting combination left much to be desired and sapped the original design of much of its speed and maneuverability.

The Japanese, however, seeing the need for a water-based fighter in the expanses of the Pacific, modified the A6M2 Zero, and came up with what was arguably the most successful water-based fighter of the war, the A6M2-N, which was allocated the Allied codename "Rufe."

A good view of an early F4U-1 under construction in 1942. The massive amount of wiring and piping for the aircraft's huge Pratt & Whitney engine shows up here, as do the Corsair's gull wings. Author's Collection

Manufactured by Mitsubishi's competitor, Nakajima, float-Zeros served in such disparate climates as the Aleutians and the Solomons. Although the floats bled off at least 40 mph from the land-based version's top speed, they seemed to have had only a minor effect on its original maneuverability; the Rule acquired the same respect as its sire.

While the F4F and P-40 (along with the luckless P-39) held the line in the Pacific, other, newer designs were leaving production lines, and none too soon. The two best newcomers were the Army's Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Navy's Vought F4U Corsair. The P-38 quickly captured the headlines and public interest with its unique twin-boomed, twin-engine layout. It soon developed into a long-range escort, and served in the Pacific as well as Europe.

Lt Donald Balch with his F4U-1
The Marine pilot of this F4U-1, Lt Donald Balch, contemplates his good fortune by the damaged tail of his fighter. The Corsair was a relatively tough aircraft, but like any plane, damage to vital portions of its controls or powerplant could prove fatal. Author's Collection

The Corsair was originally intended to fly from air craft carriers, but its high landing speed, long nose that obliterated the pilot's view forward during the landing approach, and its tendency to bounce, banished the big fighter from American flight decks for a while. The British, however, modified the aircraft, mainly by clip ping its wings, and flew it from their small decks.

Deprived of its new carrier fighter — having settled on the new Grumman F6F Hellcat as its main carrier fighter — the Navy offered the F4U to the Marines. They took the first squadrons to the Solomons, and after a few disappointing first missions, they made the gull-winged fighter their own, eventually even flying it from the small decks of Navy escort carriers in the later stages of the war.

This "bird-cage" Corsair is landing at Espiritu Santo in September 1943. The aircraft's paint is well-weathered and its main gear tires are "dusty" from the coral runways of the area. National Archives 80G-54284

F4U-1 Corsair
1stLt Rolland N. Rinabarger of VMF-214 in his early F4U-1 Corsair at Espiritu Santo in September 1943. Badly shot up by Zeros during an early mission to Kahili only two weeks after this photo was taken, Lt Rinabarger returned to the States for lengthy treatment. He was still in California when the war ended. The national insignia on his Corsair is outlined in red, a short-lived attempt to regain that color from the prewar marking after the red circle was deleted following Pearl Harbor to avoid confusion with the Japanese "meatball." Even this small amount of red was deceptive, however, and by mid-1944, it was gone from the insignia again. Note the large mud spray on the aft under fuselage. National Archives 80G-54279

Besides the two main fighters, the Army's Oscar and the Navy's Zeke and its floatplane derivative, the Rufe, the Japanese flew a wide assortment of aircraft, including land-based bombers, such as the Mitsubishi G4M (codenamed Betty) and Ki.21 (Sally). Carrier-based bombers included the Aichi D3A divebomber (the Val) which saw considerable service during the first three years of the war, and its stablemate, the torpedo bomber from Nakajima, the B5N (Kate), one of the most capable torpedo-carriers of the first half of the war. The Marine Corps squadrons in the Solomons regularly encountered these aircraft. First Lieutenant James Swett's two engagements on 7 April 1943 netted the young Wildcat pilot seven Vals, and the Medal of Honor.

Although early wartime propaganda ridiculed Japanese aircraft and their pilots, returning Allied aviators told different stories, although the details of their experiences were kept classified. Each side's culture provided the basis for their aircraft design philosophies. Eventually, the Japanese were overwhelmed by American technology and numerical superiority. However, for the important first 18 months of the Pacific war, they had the best. But, as was also the case in the European theaters, a series of misfortunes, coincidences, a lack of understanding by leaders, as well as the drain of prolonged combat, finally allowed the Americans and their Allies to overcome the enemy's initial edge.

Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers
Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers, perhaps during the Solomons campaign. Probably the best Japanese land-based bomber in the war's first two years, the G4M series enjoyed a long range, but could burst into flames under attack, much to the chagrin of its crews. The type flew as a suicide aircraft, and finally, painted white with green crosses, carried surrender teams to various sites. Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh

Galer would also be shot down three more times during his flying career — twice more during World War II and once during a tour in Korea.

The last half of September 1942 was a time of extreme trial for the Cactus Air Force (Cactus was the codename for Guadalcanal). Some relief for the Marine squadrons came in the form of bad weather and the arrival of disjointed contingents of Navy aircraft and crews who were displaced from carriers which were either sunk, or damaged. Saratoga (CV3) and Enterprise (CV6) had been torpedoed or bombed and sent back to rear area repair stations. The remaining carriers, Hornet (CV8) and Wasp (CV7), patrolled off Guadalcanal, their captains and admirals decidedly uneasy about exposing the last American flattops in the Pacific as meaty targets to the numerically superior Japanese ships and aircraft.

Wasp took a lurking Japanese submarine's torpedoes on 15 September while covering a convoy. Now only Hornet remained. Navy planes and crews from Enterprise, Saratoga, and now Wasp flew into Henderson Field to supplement the hard-pressed Marine fighter and bomber squadrons there. It was still a meager force of 63 barely operational aircraft, a collection of Navy and Marine F4Fs and SBDs, Navy Grumann TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, and a few forlorn Army P-400s. A few new Marine pilots from VMF-121 filtered in on 25 September. However, two days later, the crews from Enterprise's contingent took their planes out to meet their carrier steaming in to arrive on station off Guadalcanal. As the weather broke on the 27th, the Enterprise crews took their leave of Guadalcanal.

The next day, the Japanese mounted their first raid in nearly two weeks. Warned by the coastwatchers, Navy and Marine fighters rose to intercept the 70-plane force. Now a lieutenant colonel, Harold "Indian Joe" Bauer was making one of his periodic visits from Efate, and scored a kill, a Zero, before landing.

A native of North Platte, Nebraska, Bauer was part-Indian (as was Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington). A veteran of 10 years as a Marine aviator, he watched the progress of the campaign at Guadalcanal from his rear-area base on Efate. He would come north, using as an excuse the need to check on those members of his squadron who had been sent to Henderson and would occasionally fly with the Cactus fighters.

His victory on the 28th was his first, and soon, Bauer was a familiar face to the Henderson crews. Bauer was visiting VMF-224 on 3 October when a coastwatcher reported a large group of Japanese bombers in bound for Henderson. VMF-223 and -224 took off to intercept the raiders. The Marine Wildcats accounted for 11 enemy aircraft; Lieutenant Colonel Bauer claimed four, making him an ace.

On 30 September, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, braved a heavy rain storm to fly in to Henderson for an awards ceremony. John Smith, Marion Carl, and Bob Galer, as well as some 1st Marine Division personnel, received the Navy Cross. Other members of the Cactus Air Force, Navy and Marine, were decorated with Distinguished Flying Crosses. Nimitz departed in a blinding rain after presenting a total of 27 medals to the men of the Cactus Air Force.

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