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

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 respective flagships.

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 equipment.

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 transport ships.

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.

painting of aerial combat
Capt 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.

Next Page Document Cover Next Page
MARINES The Few. The Proud.
Back to Top
Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division