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

Post-Guadalcanal Operations, February-December 1943

Even though the main body of their troops had been evacuated, the Japanese continued to oppose Allied advances by attacking ships and positions. The enemy mounted these attacks through June 1943 from their huge bases in southern Bougainville and from Rabaul on New Britain.

On 7 April 1943, the enemy sent a huge strike against Allied shipping around Guadalcanal. The Japanese force consisted of more than 100 Zero escorts and perhaps 70 bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. It was an incredibly large raid, the likes of which had not been seen in the Solomons for several months. But it was also, at best, a last desperate gamble by the Japanese in the area.

painting of aerial dogfight
A Marine Wildcat dogfights a Zero over Henderson as other F4Fs finish off another enemy fighter at low level. Painting by Robert Taylor, courtesy of The Military Gallery

Henderson scrambled over 100 fighters — Wildcats, Corsairs, P-38s, P-39s, and P-40s. Among this gaggle were the F4Fs of VMF-221. First Lieutenant James E. Swett, leading one of the squadron's divisions, waded into a formation of Val dive bombers. Swett had arrived on Guadalcanal in February and had participated in a few patrols, but had yet to fire his guns in combat.

As he led his four Wildcats toward the Japanese formation, Swett ignored the flak from the American ships below. He targeted two Vals and brought them down. He got a third dive-bomber as a flak shell put a hole in his Wildcat's port wing.

Disengaging, Swett tested his wounded fighter, and satisfied that he could still fly and fight with it, he reentered the fight. Spotting five Vals hightailing it home, he caught up with the little formation and methodically disposed of four of the fixed-gear Vals. The gunner of the fifth bomber, however, hit Swett's Wildcat with a well-aimed burst from his light machine gun, putting .30-caliber ammunition into the Marine fighter's engine and cockpit canopy.

Wounded from the shattering glass, and with his vision obscured from spouting engine oil, Swett pumped more fire into the Val, killing the gunner. The Japanese aircraft disappeared into a cloud, leaving a smoke trail behind. American soldiers later found the Val, with its dead crew. The troops presented Swett with the radio code from the Val's cockpit. However, the aircraft was apparently never credited to Swett's account, leaving his official total for the day at seven.

Swett struggled toward Henderson but over Tulagi harbor, his aircraft's engine quit, leaving him to ditch. The Wildcat hit hard, throwing its pilot against the prominent gunsight, stunning him and breaking his nose. Like Joe Foss six months before him, Swett was momentarily trapped as his aircraft sunk, dragging him below the surface. He finally broke free and struggled to the surface where he was rescued by a small picket boat from Gavutu Island. Only one of the four fighters of Swett's division had made it back to Henderson. After intelligence confirmed Swett's incredible one-mission tally, he became the sixth Marine Wildcat pilot to receive the Medal of Honor for action over Guadalcanal.

Swett's engagement was part of the last great aerial battle in the Solomons. The Japanese were forced to turn their attention else where as the American strategy of island-hopping began to gather momentum. All the Marine Corps Wildcat squadrons at Henderson soon transitioned to the next generation of Marine fighter aircraft, the world-beating Vought F4U Corsair which would also provide its own generation of Leatherneck aces in the coming months.

James Swett transitioned to the Corsair and served with VMF-221 when the squadron embarked in the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV17). By 11 May 1945, when he shot down his last victim, a Japanese kamikaze, he had a total of 15.5 kills in Wildcats and Corsairs.

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