Marine Corps Aces
Marine Corps aviation began in May 1912, barely a year after the birth of naval aviation. Marine pilots and flight crews flew along with Navy aviators in World War I, engaging German fighters in several running battles. By wars end on Nov. 11, 1918, Marines had shot down four German fighters. Thus, unlike the Navy, which counted one ace in the war, the Marines did not have a pilot who had shot down the five enemy aircraft required for ace status.
The First Marine Aces
The first Marine ace was a World War II pilot, Captain Marion E. Carl of Marine Fighter Squadron 223 (VMF-223). Carl would eventually shoot down 18.5 Japanese aircraft, achieve several postwar performance records in early jet aircraft, lead a Marine amphibious landing ashore in Vietnam and retire as a major general.
As a member of the ill-fated VMF-221, Carl was in the thick of the action during the pivotal Battle of Midway in June 1942, the first strategic defeat for the Japanese. In several aerial engagements, Carl managed to shoot down a Japanese Zero--the enemy's premier fighter--and win the first of two Navy Crosses.
Two months after Midway, on Aug. 7, 1942, Marines stormed ashore in the Solomons during the first Allied offensive of the war. The ensuing six-month campaign for Guadalcanal became a contest to take the islands airfield, which the Marines named Henderson Field for a pilot killed at Midway.
The codename for Guadalcanal was Cactus; thus the collection of squadrons, American and Allied, that rose from Henderson Field to do battle each day was called the Cactus Air Force. While the story of the Cactus Air Force is a tale of interservice cooperation and dependency, the stars of the struggling group were the Marine fighter and dive- and torpedo-bomber squadrons. VMF-223 and VMF-224 were the first fighter squadrons to arrive, flying the F4F-4 Wildcat. Fighting from August to November, the pilots of these and other units that followed eventually turned back the Japanese bombing offensive. Several of these Marine fighter pilots became aces, and nine Marine aviators received the Medal of Honor for their service or for specific missions during the Solomons campaign.
Among the standouts during this period were such men as Major John L. Smith, commanding officer of VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, commanding officer of VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss of VMF-121; and Lieutenant Colonel Harold Bauer, commanding officer of VMF-212. All these men received the Medal of Honor for their service at Guadalcanal; Bauers award was posthumous. Foss became the second- ranking Marine Corps ace of the war with 26 kills.
The action in the Solomons was not one-sided. Several of these aces were shot down, parachuting from their stricken fighters or ditching them in the shark-infested waters. Foss had to deal with a stuck canopy as his plane sank beneath the waves, and only a superhuman shove, no doubt helped by a large dose of fear-induced adrenalin, forced the reluctant cover open so that he could get to the surface.
Jungle diseases were constant companions, from malaria to dysentery, and often the Wildcat pilots took off suffering from these debilitating illnesses.
As the campaign moved into 1943, the Japanese tried once more to push the Allies off Guadalcanal. In this second phase of the campaign, aces 1st Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc and 1st Lieutenant James E. Swett received Medals of Honor for breaking up Japanese formations and shooting down large numbers of aircraft in single missions.
A New Fighter and a New Campaign
By February 1943, examples of the new Chance Vought F4U Corsair had arrived with VMF-124. Although the squadrons first missions were not as successful as hoped, the big, gull-winged fighter soon became the mainstay of the shore-based Marine Corps fighter organization, quickly supplanting the veteran Wildcat.
The first Corsair-mounted Marine ace was 1st Lieutenant Kenneth A. Walsh, a former enlisted pilot. This VMF-124 pilot scored twice on April 1, 1943, shooting down two Zeros, and then gained three more kills on May 13. By mid-August, he had doubled his score to 10.
In the summer of 1943, on Aug. 30, Walsh fought an incredible battle against 50 Japanese aircraft, shooting down four enemy fighters before he had to ditch his damaged Corsair. It was his third water landing in six months. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for this mission.
By mid-1943, Guadalcanal was secured, and attention turned to the island-hopping campaign that would bring the Allies to Japans doorstep. Nov. 1 brought an assault on Bougainville, largest of the Solomon Islands, which yielded an important airfield from which to support Allied bombing raids. This period was truly the heyday of Marine aces.
Undoubtedly the most colorful and most well-known of the aces of this middle period was Major Gregory R. Boyington, commanding officer of VMF-214. Stories of Pappy Boyington are legion, many founded in fact, including how he formed the legendary Black Sheep squadron, and how he served in China as a member of the American Volunteer Group, the famed Flying Tigers.
When he returned to the United States following the disbanding of AVG, Boyington claimed to have shot down six Japanese fighters, which would have made him one of the first American aces of the war. From AVG records, which were loosely kept, the most kills that can be confirmed is 3.5. He maintained until his death in 1988 that he did, in fact, have six kills, and the Marine Corps officially credits him with those kills.
Boyington finally secured command of VMF-122 for a combat tour, but did not see much action. It was not until he was ordered to form a new squadron, VMF-214, and move to the Solomons that his scores began to mount. During an intense period from November 1943 to early January 1944, Boyington destroyed 22 Japanese aircraft.
On Jan. 3, 1944, he was shot down in a large dogfight in which he claimed two enemy aircraft, and was captured. He spent the next 18 months as a prisoner of war, eventually winding up in Japan. When he was repatriated, he found he had been awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
VMF-214s five-month tour of combat created eight aces, including 1st Lieutenant John Bolt, who shot down six Japanese aircraft. Remaining in the service after the war, Bolt served an exchange tour with the U.S. Air Force in Korea flying the F-86 Sabrejet. During a three-month period there, Bolt shot down six Russian-built MiG-15s, becoming the Marine Corps first and only jet ace, and one of a very select group of pilots who became aces in two wars.
First Lieutenant Robert M. Hanson was one of those lights that burns intensely for a short time and then goes out. The son of missionaries, Hanson joined VMF-215 in time to cover the Bougainville landings. The most successful Corsair pilot in the Navy or Marine Corps, he shot down 25 Japanese planes$often in clumps of three, four and five$during two combat tours.
On Feb. 3, one day before his 24th birthday, Hanson participated in a fighter sweep. On the return flight, he left his flight path to strafe a lighthouse that had proved troublesome as a enemy flak tower and observation post. His friends watched from above as Hansons big blue-gray Corsair ran at the tower, its six machine guns peppering the structure. Suddenly, they were horrified to see Hansons aircraft shudder as its wing disintegrated from flak hits. The young ace tried to ditch, but his aircraft hit the surface, cartwheeled and crashed, leaving only scattered debris. Hanson was the third and last Marine Corsair pilot to receive the Medal of Honor$and the youngest.
Besides Hanson, VMF-215 also boasted two high-scoring aces, Captain Donald N. Aldrich and Captain Harold L. Spears, senior flight leaders of the squadron. Aldrich had been turned down by American recruiters before Pearl Harbor because he was married. Undaunted, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and got his wings in November 1941. When the United States entered the war, Aldrich was able to return home, where he eventually got his wings of gold as a Marine aviator. Spears graduated from flight training in August 1942 and went out to the Pacific with VMF-215.
Nightfighters and the End of the War
Like other military services, the Marine Corps established a nightfighter arm, equipping several squadrons with variants of such aircraft as the Lockheed PV-1 Ventura, Vought F4U Corsair and the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The F6F-3/5N models equipped five Marine nightfighter squadron, the most successful of which was VMF(N)-533, credited with 35 kills. Six of those victories went to Captain Robert Baird, the only Marine nightfighter ace.
Major Bruce Porter, commander of VMF(N)-542, had three kills in the Solomons flying Corsairs with VMF-121 in 1943. His specially equipped F6F-5N Hellcat had a mixed wing-mounted armament of two 20 mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns. On June 15, 1945, Porter used his special Hellcat to shoot down two Japanese aircraft, becoming the only Marine aviator to score kills in both the Corsair and the Hellcat, and ending the war with a total of five kills.
One of the most accomplished Marine fighter aces was 1st Lieutenant Wilbur J. Thomas of VMF-213, who shot down four Japanese Zeros on June 30, 1944. By the time his squadron left for the States in December, Thomas had scored 16.5 kills in just five engagements. He scored two more kills during a tour aboard the carrier Essex (CV-9) during a mission over Tokyo on Feb. 16, 1945.
Marines had flown from carriers since the 1930s, but had never been permanent members of the air groups, for various political and occasionally tactical reasons. By 1944, however, Marine fighter squadrons were flying from several ships, especially the small escort carriers. By this time, the F4U Corsair had been cleared to operate from American flattops; the British Fleet Air Arm had been flying their Corsairs from their carriers for a year before the U.S. Navy approved carrier operations.
Thus, Leatherneck squadrons went to sea, taking with them the experienced aces of the Solomons campaign, as well as untried, but highly motivated and capable young pilots. By February 1945, eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons were embarked in four Navy aircraft carriers.
The invasion of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, and carrier-borne Marine Corps fighters were in the thick of the action protecting Navy ships from kamikaze suicide attacks. A few aces added to their scores. Walsh got one Japanese aircraft off Okinawa in June 1945 while shore based with VMF-222 on the newly secured island. Carl took command of his old squadron, VMF-223, when it transitioned to Corsairs, and shot down two more Japanese fighters in December 1943. But to a large extent, the heyday of Marine aces had passed.
Marine Corps pilots and air crewmen shot down 2,345 Japanese aircraft during the war. The 125 official Marine aces accounted for 976 enemy aircraft, or 42 percent of the Marine aerial victories.
Peter B. Mersky is the assistant editor of Approach, the Navys aviation safety magazine. He is the author of numerous articles and several books on Navy and Marine Corps aviation. He retired as a commander from the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Marine Ace Major Marion E. Carl with 18.5 confirmed kills. Vella Lavella, 5 Jan 1944. (USMC photo by TSgt. D.Q. White)
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