Long after dark, close to midnight on the night of October 13, 1942, the Japanese navy positioned two battleships, Kongo and Haruna, within range of the air base, and, after their aircraft had dropped high-intensity flares to mark the target, the two ships' sixteen guns began zeroing in on Henderson Field. They soon found the range, and, for more than an hour the huge guns propelled a total of more than 900 fourteen-inch shells, some high-explosive and some armor-piercing, into the area of the airfield. The unimaginable terror this great bombardment caused to the men in their foxholes was matched by the actual destruction. Samuel Griffith in The Battle for Guadalcanal stated simply: "Few bombardments of World War II equaled this in the amount of large calibre ammunition fired in a few minutes more than an hour on so small a target."
The tangible devastation caused by this unprecedented attack was all too easily measured: of 39 operational SBDs, 34 were destroyed or knocked out of commission; 16 of 40 Wildcat fighters were destroyed, and the 24 others were damaged. In human terms, there were 60 casualties, of whom 41 were killed. Most pertinent to the story of Joseph Sailer was the terrible loss sustained by one squadron of dive-bombers. VMSB-141, which had arrived bit by bit on Guadalcanal from late September up to the very day of the shelling, lost five officers, including its squadron commander, executive officer, and flight officer, in this one deadly night on the ground. This squadron, barely arrived on the scene, was eviscerated before it had much of a chance to become oriented and effective. Eventually, of forty-one pilots that arrived for combat, the squadron lost eighteen killed or missing in action, and another nine to injuries or illness. Thus, by late October, there was a desperate need for more airplanes, and for pilots to fly them into combat.
On October 13, 1942, the same day as the terrible shelling of Henderson Field that devastated VMSB-141, Joe Sailer and his squadron, VMSB-132, embarked at San Diego aboard a troopship code-named the USS Mumu, actually the luxury vessel Lurline of the Matson line, bound for the South Pacific with about 6,000 troops on board. The twin-stack, 630-foot vessel was in fine condition and quite new, having been launched into cruising service just ten years before. Although the ship was far more crowded than a commercial cruise, the conditions on board were fine in many ways; the officers' meals were served by the stewards of the line, and the food was of the same excellent quality enjoyed by passengers in peacetime, until fresh milk and other items ran out about two-thirds of the way across.
The squadron at this point had twenty-seven Marine officers and 245 Marine enlisted men, with a few Navy personnel attached. The enlisted men of VMSB-132 slept twelve to a stateroom in four sets of triple bunks. In the grand ballroom, plywood covered the mirrored walls, but the elegant chandeliers still glittered from the ceiling as reminders of the ship's peacetime grandeur. During the twelve-day voyage to the South Pacific, the officers played a lot of bridge and conducted combat training sessions for the pilots and other men. In the classes on identification of Japanese ships and planes, the silhouettes would be flashed on a screen for a split second to see how fast the men could identify them and count them accurately. They kept in shape with physical exercise up on the deck.
During one of the training sessions on board the ship, Sailer showed his rarely evident temper. He laid out a series of steps for a particular procedure, then called on Lieutenant Simpson to repeat the steps of the procedure. Simpson got one step out of order, and Sailer snapped at him sharply. The squadron commander seemed quiet and mild-mannered, but had a firm sense of command when the occasion arose.
Because of the ship's great speed of about twenty knots, it did not have to travel in a convoy but merely zigzagged to avoid submarines, and the trip was uneventful, except for an epidemic of seasickness. The Lurline arrived on October 28 at its destination of Noumea, on the island of New Caledonia, where the United States had a large headquarters and supply base.
On October 29, while much of the squadron stayed behind under Major Robertshaw, living in tents on a hill overlooking the city, Sailer, along with three of his pilots and their gunners, left Noumea in the first wave of flights ferrying replacements to Guadalcanal. They were driven over fifty miles to the airfield at Tontouta, from which they were flown about 400 miles to the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. After an overnight stay there, they were ferried during the night in a DC-3 (R4D) to Henderson Field, with no escort or fighter protection; their only cover was the darkness. After the four and one-half-hour flight, the plane dropped its passengers off in the darkness at Guadalcanal, and was gone within thirty minutes. When Joe Sailer and the first contingent from his squadron finally set foot on the island, it was November 1.
At this time the military action on the island was in a relatively calm phase. On October 26, the Japanese had failed in their second attempt to capture Henderson Field. The desperate struggle for control of Guadalcanal had been going on for about three months, fought on both sides by troops in the jungle, by sailors in the waters of the Slot, and by the pilots and crews of the bombers and fighters based on land and on carriers. Both sides had scored transitory victories and suffered stinging defeats. There was no single battle for control of Guadalcanal, but rather a string of conflicts that together amounted to the campaign to win dominion over the island and its airfield. In the bloody fighting on land, the American Marines of the First Division had driven the Japanese army units into defensive positions back in the jungle. At sea, the results were mixed. In early August, just after the American landing, a surprise attack sank four American ships and damaged three others in the disastrous Battle of Savo Island. Later in that month, in the course of continuing attempts to bolster their army troops and neutralize Henderson Field, the Japanese sent a large fleet of reinforcements toward the island. This time, in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Americans had the upper hand, sinking a Japanese carrier and two other ships, while sustaining damage to the carrier Enterprise.
In October, in the Battle of Cape Esperance, the two navies clashed at night when the U.S. Navy surprised a Japanese cruiser force, resulting in the loss of four Japanese ships and three American vessels. Then, in the larger Battle of Santa Cruz, on October 26, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey Jr., sent his two carrier forces, centered on the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, to intercept the Japanese force that was to support the next attempt to take Henderson Field back from the Americans. In this major confrontation, the Enterprise was damaged and the Hornet ultimately was sunk; the Japanese had two carriers and one cruiser knocked out of action for a period of several weeks, and lost nearly 100 planes and 148 airmen. However, despite the Americans' severe losses, they once again had repelled a Japanese drive to retake the island and its critically important airfield. Now the stage was set for the climactic naval battle that would determine the ultimate course of the campaign. During the few days before the crucial battle was joined, as more of the squadron's pilots flew SBDs over to Henderson Field, or were flown there in transport planes, Sailer and his early arrivals flew frequent search and observation missions. On November 2, Sailer took an SBD3 up for an observation flight to familiarize himself with the area and to conduct a general sector search for enemy shipping, aircraft activity, and other matters of interest. In the rear seat was Technical Sergeant Howard Stanley, the radio-gunner who had been flying with him regularly since May of 1942 in San Diego, where they had flown in SBD-ls and SBD-3s together in the early days of the new squadron's training. Stanley, a twenty-year-old from Ahoskie, North Carolina, seventy miles south of Norfolk, Virginia, had finished high school, and had a scholarship to go to art school, but was more interested in airplanes than art. He already had a private pilot's license when he enlisted in the Marine Corps at seventeen. Now, after extensive training in the States, he was the squadron's chief radioman, and was to be in the rear seat for twenty-four out of the twenty-six flights Sailer would make over the next five weeks, including every attack flight except the final one on December 7. On their first flight at Guadalcanal, the major gave Stanley "a grin from the front cockpit that gave me more courage and confidence than anything else in the world could have given.''
That first sector search turned up no sign of the enemy, and Sailer and Stanley returned to Henderson Field after a flight of more than four hours. There was not much respite on the ground, where conditions were never good. There was a scant supply of food, variously reported as consisting of canned lamb's tongue, onion sandwiches, sausage, corned beef, Spam, dried potatoes, and dried eggs, and lots of rice left behind by the Japanese who abandoned the airfield when the Marines landed in August. At one point, the squadron could not even get a lister bag of water, so pilots had to take off before dawn without a cup of coffee, or even so much as a drink of water, until Major Robertshaw managed to secure the needed item. It usually was not possible to have hot meals for breakfast, because firing up the stoves in the early morning darkness would expose the cooks to Japanese snipers. Many men, including Sailer, were plagued by diarrhea, and they suffered from malaria despite the preventive quinine pills; the Solomon Islands were and still are one of the worst areas in the world for malaria, borne by the hordes of ever- present mosquitoes. Everyone lived in tents, with foxholes nearby to duck into during the all too frequent aerial harassment attacks. By the time VMSB-132 arrived, the Marines had learned their lesson about foxhole assignments, and ensured that the squadron's most senior officers did not share a tent or foxhole, after the leadership of VMSB-141 was wiped out in one catastrophic night of shelling on October 13-14.
On most days there were attacks by formations of high-flying enemy bombers. At night the Japanese often sent over a bomber dubbed "Washing Machine Charlie" because of the rough, unsynchronized drone of its propellers. There was heavy artillery, called "Pistol Pete," well back behind the Japanese lines, directing its explosive shells at Henderson Field. Although the Cactus Air Force and the other American forces did their best to suppress these various forms of deadly harassment, there inevitably was a toll taken in lack of sleep and general anxiety. Sailer, like all of the pilots, became tired from lack of sleep, and, during the heaviest periods, from the sheer exhaustion that resulted from dawn-to-dusk flights. He had never been a very large man; at twenty-four, when he was issued his civilian transport pilot's license, he had been listed at five feet eleven inches and 155 pounds. Now, his weight dropped substantially, to the point that he had to tighten his trousers up with a long tail of belt showing, and the pants in large folds like pleats. There is no indication that he was pushed close to a breaking point, though; he always remained cool, level-headed, and focused clearly on the mission at hand. He did allow himself one special dispensation to battle the drudgery and fatigue: Just about every morning he stopped by the sick bay and saw Lieutenant Victor Falk, a Navy doctor who was flight surgeon for VMSB-141, the squadron that had been devastated by the shelling on the night of October 13-14. Dr. Falk supplied Sailer with a dose of elixir terpin hydrate, a cough medicine that had the bitter orange taste, and at least some of the alcohol content, of cointreau.
Sailer did his best to look out for the other pilots and enlisted men in the squadron. Together with his resourceful and dedicated supply officer, Lieutenant Ernie Brenner, he managed to secure scarce but crucial items that would not have seemed of much consequence back in the United States, such as rags to wipe the windshields of the airplanes. To deal with the shortage of satisfying food, Sailer had Brenner take advantage of an unusual characteristic of the squadron: very few of its members were drinkers, so the supply officer had the squadron's ration of rum to work with for barter, and he managed to trade it for ice cream, a much-appreciated luxury that provided a welcome contrast to Spam and nondescript dried foods.The squadron commander was by no means a pushover, though; on one occasion he heard some of his men talking about when they might be going home. Sailer told them to knock it off; "You're here to fight and until we're ready to go, you don't talk about going home."
Despite the hardships and the general lack of amenities, the dive-bomber pilots, like their colleagues in torpedo bombers and fighters, managed to function in top form when the chips were down. Though each mission was, of course, unique in some way, and each pilot and gunner had their own ways of doing things, the typical mission of VMSB-132 followed a general pattern. The "typical" mission outlined here is an attack against shipping; there were, of course, other types of flights, such as search missions and attacks on ground positions. This description incorporates information about the specific procedures used by Sailer and Stanley. Once the targets had been named, either from reports generated by search flights or by intelligence reports from the Coastwatchers, the pilots would go to the Henderson Field operations hut for a briefing. The pilot and gunner would then walk over to the runway and meet at the airplane assigned to them for that flight; there was no telling which SBD they would get. The parachutes, which were left in the plane from flight to flight, might be soaking wet when the men got in; they wouldn't know if the chutes would work if needed.
As the leader, Sailer took off first, out over the water, then circled around waiting for the other planes in the group to form up on him. Once they had gained a little altitude, the pilot and gunner snapped on their parachutes. They normally left the front and rear canopies open throughout the whole flight, because the temperatures were warm enough, and the open canopies allowed a quick exit in the event of an emergency. Not long into the flight, Sailer test-fired his two .50-caliber guns that were fixed in place and synchronized through the propeller, and Stanley test-fired the two movable .30-calibers on his turret in the back. Once the formation had been established and the group was heading out to its destination, Sailer often would let Stanley take over flying, using the duplicate set of controls from the rear seat-Stanley had his pilot's license when he enlisted, and above all had wanted the Marines to send him to flight school. Sailer was planning to arrange for this after their tour at Guadalcanal.On many missions, the target was enemy ships that had been sighted somewhere out in the Slot. The SBDs could seek them out anywhere within their effective range of 300 miles from Henderson Field. Once the American planes made visual contact with the enemy, Sailer gave Stanley a coded message, which Stanley sent by telegraph key back to the operations center on Guadalcanal. Besides alerting headquarters as to the status of the current attack, this message gave the people on Guadalcanal some idea of what to expect that night in the way of shelling from Japanese ships that were heading into range for that purpose.
The formation of SBDs (together with TBFs, fighters, and others, depending on the occasion) would normally fly the early portion of the mission at 8,000 to 10,000 feet, where supplemental oxygen was not required. Then, as they approached the target area, they would climb to their initial attack altitude of 12,000 feet or somewhat higher. If they went much above 12,000, they used oxygen masks to avoid the headaches and lightheadedness that came from the thin atmosphere at that altitude.
From the attack altitude, the dive-bombers would start descending at 1,000 to 2,000 feet per minute, picking up speed in the steep downward slope. At least in Sailer's squadron, the SBDs did not dive in a single steep line down to the target. Rather, they descended in a series of steps, called "stairstepping" by some pilots, so they got progressively steeper in their dives. In this way, the pilots avoided the danger of overshooting the targets in a single, miscalculated dive slope. Also, if they got too steep too soon, the plane might begin to skid and become hard to control. They didn't get into their final, steepest dive until they were down to just under 7,000 feet. Throughout the diving maneuvers, the ships' anti-aircraft guns would be firing, but the Japanese at this time did not have altitude radar to measure the airplanes' vertical range. As soon as the flak began to get close to the planes' actual altitude, the pilots dropped down to a lower level, in their stairstepping maneuver, which, in addition to providing greater precision in the diving approach, helped them avoid the shell bursts. After the stairstepping moves had been repeated once or twice, the pilots would be in their final dive on the ships. The Dauntless pilots would have coordinated among themselves how to divide up the targets. One three-plane section might select one column of ships, another section a different column, depending on the configuration in which the ships were arranged. Sailer, as leader, would dive first, followed closely by the remainder of his section. Sailer would reduce power and open his dive brakes. These were the perforated metal sections of the upper and lower surfaces of the wings' trailing edges. When opened, the outboard sections of both wing surfaces opened to form a "V" with the wing's trailing edge, assisted by a center section under the fuselage that opened downward, so that a total of five wing sections were acting to produce drag to slow the descent of the diving SBD. The dive had to be controlled and stable in order to drop the bomb on target. Without the dive brakes, the Dauntless would plummet down at over 400 knots, and could not be controlled with the needed precision. With the brakes deployed, the speed would drop to about 200 knots, so the airplane could be kept in steady trim for the bombing run.
As he guided the plane down toward the targeted ship, Sailer had to ignore whatever flak was bursting around him; at this point, it was critical to keep the plane steady on course. He had a primitive sort of bomb sight that was built through the windshield, a device like a telescope with triple magnification and cross-hairs, nothing like the elaborate gyro-controlled bomb sights made by Sperry and Norden. He had to raise his seat with a lever, lean forward, and keep one hand and one eye glued to the bomb sight. He used that view to maintain the plane straight on course for the ship below, so he couldn't see the altimeter. When the time was right, he told Stanley to start counting down the altitude in thousands of feet, "ten-nine-eight-seven" and so on as they made their descent. As they approached the enemy ship, the pilot would fire his twin .50-caliber machine guns, with the intent of making the ship's gunners dive for cover, thereby suppressing the anti-aircraft fire. When his plane had dived down to about the 2,000-foot level, Sailer would reach out with his left hand to a small knob with a lever on it. He would pull back sharply on this lever, which would release the bomb. They couldn't go much lower for the drop, or they would be in danger of being hit by shrapnel from the explosion. If they dropped from much higher, the chances of a hit on the target were greatly reduced. The range for various pilots varied from about 1,500 feet to as high as 3,000 or 4,000. In any event, once the bomb was away, the Dauntless would jump up and ahead from the sudden loss of the 1,000-pound weight. Sailer would close the dive flaps, apply full throttle, and pull up sharply out of the dive. At this point, the positive g-force would cause the blood to drain down from their heads, and Sailer and Stanley would both black out for a few seconds.
When the plane came back under normal g-force in the climb, the blood flowed back to their heads and they regained consciousness. The plane would still be pulling back up. They wouldn't return to high altitude at this point, in order to keep the enemy fighter planes from attacking from below. There was a different danger from staying low, though: The Japanese ships could fire their large-diameter guns, and the shells would throw up a wall of water that could knock down a low-flying airplane. Still, the preference was to stay low until the airplanes were out of range of enemy fighters and then to climb to 3,000 or 4,000 feet for the flight back to Henderson Field. As long as they were in range of the Japanese fighters, the Dauntless crews had to maintain sharp vigilance and attend to their front and rear guns. Sailer's gunner, Stanley, had many occasions to shoot at Zeroes, and once was able to claim a kill. As Stanley recounted the incident, a Zero had approached Sailer's Dauntless from below and fired at the airplane's rear. The Zero came up close behind the Dauntless, then rolled onto its back to peel away. At this point, according to Stanley, "when he turned over on the back, the whole bottom was exposed and I was leading on him and I had a good shot on him, and I just held on to him and killed him, and you could see the smoke and he went down and went in.'