Still a captain, I was to take over VMF-223 at the new air station at El Toro, south of Los Angeles, during late January. . . . VMF-223 was in pretty poor shape at the time I inherited it. All the Guadalcanal pilots had been reassigned except Ken Frazier and Fred Gutt, and we had no aircraft. I flew an occasional SNJ or F4F just to keep current, but it was mid-March before we scared up a ragtag assortment of eight Wildcats and SNJs.
In early April, while flying an FM-1 Wildcat, 1 tangled with some P-38 Lightnings from Orange County Airport-now John Wayne Airport. We had an exchange program and knew one another to a degree, so we agreed to jump each other whenever appropriate. Also, I visited John Wilkins, my classmate from Oregon State and onetime squadronmate from Guadalcanal. He was now a major commanding a Lightning squadron at North Island, San Diego.
John was having trouble teaching his pilots overhead runs and asked if I could help. During the few days he had been with us at Henderson Field he had been impressed with the overheads we made on Japanese bombers because of their safety for the pilot and their effectiveness against the enemy. An overhead run accomplished two important things for a fighter pilot: first, it largely eliminated bullet trajectory from the gunnery equation because you were shooting straight down toward the target; and second, the run denied enemy gunners a shot at you because you were diving on them from directly overhead. True, a bomber's tailgunner could snipe at you as you flashed vertically past him, but if you did it right he was dead by then.
However, I discovered there was a lot of difference between the F4F and P-38. The first time I made an overhead in a Lightning I really thought I would buy the farm because I began at the same altitude I had used in the F4F, causing me to build up way too much speed. The P-38 was a sleek, fast aircraft, one of the first ever to encounter compressibility. I flashed past the target and had trouble pulling out. Every time I pulled back on the yoke I got into buffet, and when I eased off the airplane went faster. It was a pretty rough ride.
I kept working at it and eventually made a pretty good pass, but I had to slow down close to the stall and begin my pullout before I piled up much speed. Unfortunately, that early model P-38 did not have speed brakes, and several planes and pilots were lost before the Army got control of the situation. Later that year John took his squadron to the European Theater, where he went missing in action. At war's end he was declared dead, though I never learned any details.
By June VMF-223 had five F4U-1s, the early "birdcage" model with the low, framework canopy and bouncy landing gear. I tangled with a lone P-38 and was beating up on it when I lost part of my elevator at 320 knots indicated. I learned that the Lightning couldn't turn with a Corsair but had more speed and climb. One nice thing: P-38s were all over the place. If you went looking for trouble you could usually find a P-38 somewhere from March Field, Orange County, or North Island. I found I could outturn a Lightning, but it was faster on the level and would outclimb a Corsair.
Most of my pilots had relatively little flying time, and we had plenty of accidents. A senior lieutenant lost it one day during a dogfight, got into an inverted spin at 5,500 feet, and bailed out at 3,300. The F4U righted itself and crashed right-side up east of El Toro-one of life's embarrassing moments. Several Corsairs were lost under similar circumstances, apparently because the training command had stopped teaching inverted-spin recovery. Pilots often didn't recognize that they were in that situation, and if they kept the stick forward, as in a standard recovery, they remained in the spin.
There were also many ground loops on landing. In the birdcage model the pilot sat low in the cockpit and the tailwheel strut was too short. Landing three-point, some pilots would stall too soon, and the aircraft would whip back and forth on rollout. I recommended landing tail-high, holding that attitude until speed fell off and the tail settled naturally. Still, one pilot put an F4U on its back during landing, and until the -1A model arrived with its higher canopy and longer tailwheel strut the problems continued. Ken Frazier and I were all right, and even short pilots like Fred Gutt could handle the -1 if they were careful, but VMF-223 needed a lot more experience.
Ironically, one of my biggest problems was trying to avoid getting someone in the squadron who was senior to Ken or Fred. I wanted to keep them in positions of authority because I knew and trusted them. The group commander, Colonel Freeman, heard about my designs and called me in. He said he was going to assign officers as he thought appropriate, and consequently Frazier and Gutt were pushed down the ladder. That's how things were done in the Marine Corps; experience and ability seldom overcame seniority.
Around 10 July we heard we might leave soon for overseas, and for once the rumors were true. On the eighteenth the entire squadron squeezed into a dirty, crowded troop train and headed north. We boarded the seaplane tender USS Wright (AV-1) at Alameda on the twentieth and arrived at Pearl Harbor a week later. Edna, a bride of barely six months, returned to modeling in New York City.
VMF-223 spent the rest of the summer and fall at MCAS Ewa and Midway. We received two majors-Bob Keller and Al Armstrong-from VMF-212 despite the fact that their CO wanted to keep them and I wanted my own senior pilots. Eventually Bob ended up as a lieutenant general and Al made major general.
Midway's facilities were much improved from my previous tour, but that didn't compensate for everything. We lost one pilot and four aircraft while there, including three F4Us with engine failures over water. However, my personal Corsair was number thirteen, and it performed well: 275 knots (316 mph) in a speed run at sea level.
It seemed we continually received pilots with little or no time in the aircraft they would fly in combat. Their total time was very low and some of the young fellows were not enthusiastic about flying fighters. I thought there had to be a better way of screening these pilots and providing them a little more flight time, particularly in unusual maneuvers. Many of them not only weren't very good at aerobatics, they weren't even interested in learning. They tried to stay away from anything that put them on their backs. It took a lot of doing to convince them they had to be able to recover from any position at almost any speed.
I found I could help in some ways. For instance, I told my pilots about the Zero over the beach at Guadalcanal. If you had to shoot with your nose pointing straight up, you could do it with a certain amount of confidence. But I stressed that nobody should try to dogfight a Zero. If you didn't get a shot in the first ninety degrees, reverse the turn and dive away-extend out of range and come back again with position or altitude in your favor. These were some of the points I had to get across as soon as possible. I couldn't reject pilots based on their attitudes, even though attitude had enormous significance in combat flying. If a pilot doesn't want to fly hot airplanes and mix it up, he shouldn't be in fighters.
Before leaving the States we had wisely bought fifty cases of liquor and packed it for the trip to Hawaii and Midway. I wasn't much of a drinker, but I knew the value of booze as barter. Since we were on Midway for two months, our liquor stash was a source of pilferage and the atoll's commodore threatened to confiscate it. Finally I appealed to his sense of duty and used a whole case to buy him off. Aboard ship we had the liquor under guard, as it became more valuable the farther west we went.
VMF-223 sailed in the escort carrier USS Breton (ACV-23) with half of VMF-216, headed south from Pearl Harbor on 30 October. My twenty-eighth birthday was observed at sea two days later, but some friends in Hawaii, the Kepplers, had thrown an early party for me before sailing. I had joked with Edna that she never would have an excuse for forgetting my birthday because her church always observed all Saints' Day the first of November.
On the tenth day at sea we launched fourteen Corsairs for Efate in the New Hebrides. After spending a few weeks reorganizing and letting the rear echelon catch up, we were airlifted to Barakoma Airfield on Vella Lavella Island in the Solomons. Immediately I was concerned with two problems: aircraft and weather.
The Marine Corps had a policy of rotating squadrons in and out of the combat area, leaving the same aircraft for units to fly in rotation. Since nobody really owned the airplanes, there was little motivation to keep them maintained properly. I tired to get this policy changed at group headquarters but made little progress.
November is monsoon weather in the Solomons, with lots of rain and low ceilings, and canceled or diverted missions were not unusual. Consequently, our first mission wasn't flown until 1 December 1943 when six of us strafed Chabais. We lost lieutenant Kessler, cause unknown, but he returned three days later, reporting his engine had been hit.
Commander Air Forces Solomons (ComAirSols) had a major priority of conquering the Japanese naval-air facility at Rabaul, New Britain. Bomber escort was mandatory owing to the heavy enemy fighter strength at the Rabaul fields, and consequently the Allied fighters staged through advance bases for each mission. Otherwise they'd have lacked adequate range. In mid-December ComAirSols started a concerted effort to gain air superiority over Rabaul with a series of bombing missions and fighter sweeps. Usually VMF-223 and the other F4U squadrons staged through Torokina on Bougainville when weather allowed. My first sweep to Rabaul was flown on the sixteenth with seventy-seven fighters, but we made no contact.
As a squadron commander I had a turn at leading the Rabaul missions, which aggressive aviators regarded as gravy trains. Greg Boyington had VMF-214 at this time, and he was getting score-happy. Joe Foss had completed his Guadalcanal tour in February of that year with twenty-six victories, and reportedly Boyington was closing in. Actually that wasn't the case, as we learned forty years later. When Greg left prior to getting kicked out of the Flying Tigers in 1942, he returned home claiming six kills in China. General Chennault had credited him with only two aerial victories, though for some reason the Marine Corps accepted the higher figure. But in late 1943, with his combined AVG and VMF-214 scores, Boyington was nearing Joe Foss's record as the Black Sheep's tour neared completion.
So, when I reentered the South Pacific "ace race" it was a close contest. I was certainly competitive as a fighter ace, but since I was only recently back in combat I could afford to take it easy at first. On 23 December I led my guys to Torokina again, where we topped off and launched for Rabaul as I led twenty Corsairs and twenty-eight P-38s. We made contact over Cape St. George and I stalked a new opponent through the clouds. It was a Kawasaki Tony, a sleek, good-looking Japanese Army fighter that resembled the Messerschmitt 109. I splashed him between Rabaul and New Ireland while the rest of the squadron claimed three more confirmed and three probables without loss. Boyington's squadron and VMF-222 added fifteen more; we were taking a toll on Rabaul's defenders.
I flew a routine escort the next day and returned in a sweep on the twenty-seventh. We were up at 0415 to escort a PBY to Torokina, where we refueled and continued to Rabaul. Shortly past 1000 we spotted a flock of Zekes, though I probably shouldn't have pressed it. My radio, airspeed indicator, and altimeter were inoperable but my guns worked, so I went after a pair of Zeros. I killed one and damaged another while VMF-214 and-216 F4Us claimed sixteen more.
One thing quickly became evident on these missions. Although I always led -223, and sometimes the entire fighter sweep, nobody could control so many aircraft simultaneously. It was a flight leader's war, with four-plane divisions usually fighting their own battles in their particular slice of sky. I led another sweep on the thirtieth but got no further than Torokina owing to bad weather. The same thing happened the next day.
On 2 January 1944 Greg Boyington looked me up at Vella Lavella, where I was scheduled to lead the next day's sweep. Greg said he had twenty-five kills but that the Black Sheep's tour would end in a couple of days, so this was about his last chance to break Joe Foss's record. Greg asked if he could take my mission, though in his book he stated that I offered him the chance. At any rate, I thought I was giving up little because -223 soil had lots of time left in combat.
Boyington led the mission next day, but he was shot down and captured by the Japanese. Their records show only two planes lost in the air on 3 January (U.S. pilots claimed nine), and Greg had witnesses for only one of the three he later claimed on the mission.
When Greg came out of captivity in 1945 he had been awarded a "posthumous" Medal of Honor and was proclaimed the Marine Corps's leading ace. The medal was deserved-Greg was a talented aviator and an aggressive combat leader-but I've been rankled by the "top gun" title ever since. Even allowing the two unsubstantiated claims from his last mission, he couldn't match Joe Foss's total or his score in Marine Corps service. To my knowledge, Joe never has made any fuss over the situation-he's too much a gentleman for that-but for the Marine Corps officially to recognize Boyington as its top ace, despite documentation to the contrary, defies all logic. I suspect it's a bureaucratic inability to admit such a long-standing error.
Two days after Boyington went missing, the first of VMF-223's three scheduled line periods was over, and the pilots headed for R and R in Australia. The ground echelon remained at Barakoma to prepare new aircraft and support VMF-215. This was another inequity in the system. The enlisted men lived in the same difficult, unsanitary conditions as the pilots but didn't get the mid-tour breaks. However, there was some reason for satisfaction at this time. From 23 December to 4 January we were credited with fifteen confirmed, nine probable, and six damaged, a tally exceeded only by two other Corsair squadrons and a Hellcat outfit. Despite the combat and the miserable flying weather, we had lost just one pilot. It could have been far worse.
Upon return from Australia in early February the roof fell in. I reported to Efate, down in the New Hebrides, and learned I had been transferred to Marine Aircraft Group 12 staff-despite my objections. Bob Keller took over -223 for the rest of its tour. It was the end of my shooting, and the weather reflected my mood-we had hurricane-force winds that toppled a lot of trees.
My time at MAG-12 dragged by. We moved from Efate up to Emirau in the Bismarck Archipelago in May, keeping pace with the war. There were a few diversions, however, including the arrival of VMF-115 with Joe Foss as CO, I hadn't known Joe previously, but we got well acquainted. Medal of Honor winners like Joe weren't expected to return to combat because the Navy didn't like the idea of losing its heroes, as had happened to Butch O'Hare in late 1943. But aggressive aviators like Joe, Zeke Swett, and Ken Walsh managed to get back into action, where their experience was invaluable.
Perhaps the most fascinating event of my staff time came on 29 May when I got to fly with Charles Lindbergh. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him; he was a real gentleman. And he knew the Corsair intimately, being a field representative for United Aircraft, which owned Vought and Pratt Whitney.
Our mission wasn't anything significant-a routine bombing hop to Kavieng where there was no aerial opposition. However, Lindbergh went out to his plane well before I did and inspected it to the last rivet. When we started engines he sat there and listened to his R-2800 for the longest time, then taxied back and forth before signaling he was ready to go. Once airborne, it was routine. He flew good formation and made good dives.
Although I flew a few missions in F4Us and even one night hop in a Hellcat, most of my flying was in the staff aircraft. This was a Grumman Goose, a twin-engine amphibian designated JRF in Navy service. Colonel Vemon Guymon, the group commander, usually let me use it whenever I wanted to. I checked out some other pilots on water landings but none of them seemed to take much interest, whereas I enjoyed the experience. In September I used my influence and put Edna's brother Bernie on as second crewman on the JRF. The Kirvins were an air-minded family, and her brother Harold had made a career at Grumman.
Late that month I flew over to Mussau Island to pick up an Australian pal of mine, Warrant Officer Bob McKee. I brought him to Emirau so he could visit some friends for about three hours, and when I took off again to return him to his base I realized he was drunk. Not only that, he wanted to take control of the plane. In fact, he insisted on it. What to do?
I had an autopilot in the JRF that I seldom used, so I switched it on and let McKee take the controls. He immediately tried some violent maneuvers; pushing and pulling, fighting that autopilot until he plain passed out. Then I took control again and landed near the dock. We had quite a problem getting that limp body out of the airplane. Finally his friends pulled him out through the hatch, between the rudder pedals.
Recently I had received a letter from Manton with word that our mother had inoperable cancer. Since there was so little going on, and little prospect there ever would be, it didn't hurt my conscience to leave. I had been overseas more than a year, and Mother wasn't going to last very long.
On 5 October I went down to Bougainville to see General Claude Larkin about going home. He was born and raised only about fifteen miles from Hubbard in a little place called New Era, so we had a lot in common. "Sheriff" was quite a colorful character, but well regarded in the Marine Corps, and his wife was equally notable. She was a welder in the Kaiser shipyards in Portland, and when the foreman was asked for his best worker to launch a Liberty ship, he chose Mrs. Larkin.
General Larkin gave me clearance for leave, and on 4 November I flew out of Manus in the Admiralties on a PB2Y, then on to Kwajalein and Johnson Island. Next day I arrived at Ewa near Honolulu and called Edna, who had been working again with the Powers agency in New York. She started toward Los Angeles, and a week later I was on a Martin Mars for the fourteen-hour flight to NAS Alameda.
I had left a car with relatives in Alameda and immediately drove to Los Angeles, where I spent several hours trying to find a room. Next day I met Edna at the Savoy, It was the first time we had seen each other in fifteen months.
People have often asked how our marriage survived so many long separations. I always said it was a matter of getting a good start: we had had six months together after we were married before I returned to combat. The other thing is our simple confidence and trust in each other. As you get older you become more tolerant of such things. But Edna's Irish luck certainly has struck with here, and she's always had a halo around her as well.