Three prominent pilots of the first phase of aerial combat over Guadalcanal: Maj. John L. Smith, commander of VMF-223,

Lt. Col. Richard Mangrum, commander of VMSB-232 and Capt. Marion E. Carl, XO of VMF-223.

Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

Text: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

The Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat was the most significant

fighter aircraft deployed in the fightings for Guadalcanal. VMF-223 pilots were the first to land these aircraft

at Henderson Field.

The sky over the Coral Sea was a deep

blue with a few clouds on the morning of

August 20, 1942, when a 14th Air Group

H6K Mavis operating from the advance

patrol base in the Shortland Islands began

tracking a cruiser and two destroyers

at 1020 hours, transmitting news of the

sighting. At 1130, the Mavis reported the

three warships were escorting an aircraft

carrier when it sighted the auxiliary

aircraft carrier USS Long Island (ACV-1),

her deck loaded with aircraft. When the


INFO Eduard

message from the Mavis revealing the

presence of Long Island was received

by Combined Fleet headquarters at Truk,

Japanese commanders were elated, but

they missed the significance of the carrier

the Mavis had sighted, since they knew

nothing of the existence of U.S. “auxiliary

carriers.” To Admiral Yamamoto’s staff,

it appeared Long Island was stalking

Admiral Tanaka’s slow Reinforcement

Group, which was steaming steadily

toward Guadalcanal since departing

Truk in two forces on August 16 and

17. Long Island was beyond the range of

any Japanese strike aircraft, but Tanaka’s

fleet was in range of the unidentified

American carrier. Vice Admiral Nishizō

Tsukahara ordered Tanaka to turn away

from Guadalcanal and turn directly

toward Rabaul. If the Americans knew

where he was, they might chase him and

in so doing come within range of the 5th

Air Attack Force’s Bettys.

At 1340 hours, Yamamoto’s headquarters

received a message from the Mavis in

the next search sector over from first,

reporting the presence of a second

aircraft carrier and several surface

escorts; in fact, this was Long Island

and her escorts. The big flying boat was

March 2023