Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz
Bailing out over the jungle
The duel between Japanese naval fighter
Saburō Sakai and Wildcat pilot “Pug” Southerland, which took place on August 7,
1942, over Guadalcanal, is one of the most
famous stories from the Pacific battles.
Thanks to the books published about Sakai,
as well as the interviews he gave after the
war, his experiences during this encounter
are fairly well known. For a depiction of this
battle and his dramatic return to Rabaul in
the Zero's cockpit, see the article on Saburō
Sakai in the 06/2022 issue of INFO Eduard
James Julian “Pug” Southerland was born
in 1911 in Norberth, Pennsylvania. He joined
the Navy in 1930 and graduated from the Naval Academy six years later. He first served
on the battleships Texas and New York but
began flight training in 1939. He became
a naval aviator in February 1940 and was
assigned to VF-5. Two years later he was
promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.
On this fateful 7 August, he took off from the
deck of the USS Saratoga a total of three times. During the last sortie, he led a formation of four Wildcats that were part of the defence against a Japanese raid by G4M Betty
bombers from the 4th Kōkūtai escorted by
Zeros from Tainan Kōkūtai. The Japanese
wanted to attack the transport vessels that
were supporting the Guadalcanal landings.
Southerland was the first to spot the bombers over their target in the intense cloud
cover. He claimed to have shot down two
Bettys, but all three of his wingmen were
attacked by Zeros led by Shirō Kawai. Two
were shot down and the third returned to
the carrier with a badly damaged machine.
Southerland used up all of his ammunition in the attack on the Bettys, and his machine was slightly damaged by the Betty´s
gunners. This made things very difficult for
him when he was attacked by Zeros piloted by PO3c Ichirōbei Yamazaki, who broke
away from Kawai's formation, and two of
Sakai's wingmen, PO2c Enji Kakimoto and
PO3c Kazushi “Popo” Utō.
Against the enemy's superior numbers,
Southerland calmly fought a manoeuvre
battle, getting into firing position several
times, but unfortunately he was out of ammunition. He was quite protected from the
effects of the Zeros' fire by the Wildcat's armor and sturdy construction. After Yamazaki broke away from the fruitless power play,
Saburō Sakai flew in to help his wingmen,
and the ensuing development is well known.
Piotr Forkasiewicz captured the final seconds of the Wildcat's flight in his painting.
Southerland bailed out of the machine at
a very low altitude and the machine exploded just before hitting the ground. The American pilot managed to open his parachute
and landed on the ground. He was in shock,
exhausted and had eleven wounds.
At dawn on 8 August, Southerland headed
east towards Lunga Point, cautiously
passing through several deserted villages.
He then attempted to use a canoe, but it leaked so he continued on foot along the coast.
At one of the next villages he met two native boys, one of whom was in contact with
an Allied coastal watcher. Southerland was
led to the village of Mamara and he could
regain his strength there until dawn on 10
August. The locals were all very friendly, but
they were understandably concerned about
the fighting they had seen or heard in the
past few days. Only the oldest man in the
village was unfriendly and expressed himself in terms that he used to eat white men,
but those days were gone.
On the morning of 10 August, three boys loaded Southerland into a canoe, managed to
bypass the Japanese camp at the mouth of
the Mantanikau River, and turned the Wildcat pilot over to a unit of U.S. Marines. On the
way back, the canoe came under fire from
the Japanese, sank, and the young natives
fell into captivity. Fortunately, they managed
to escape after a short time. Southerland
departed Guadalcanal on 12 August aboard
a Catalina, the first machine to land at
In April 1944, he was appointed commander
of VF-83 on USS Essex and later served
with VF-23 on USS Langley, becoming commander of CAG-23. With both units he
flew Hellcats in 1945 and achieved three
more victories. On October 12, 1949, while serving with VF-43, he was killed in
a F4U-4 accident during takeoff from USS
Franklin D. Roosevelt. The wreckage of his
Wildcat was first examined by aviation researchers in the 1990s.