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

January 2023

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

Lunga airfield.

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.

INFO Eduard